In 1996, when the German Wind Energy Association (GWEA) came to life, the full force of Germany’s onshore wind power amounted to a handful of entrepreneurs experimenting with a budding but imperfect technology.
Today, only 16 years later, onshore wind power constitutes 8 percent of Germany’s energy supply, generating nearly half of the nation’s renewable electricity. More than 24,000 wind turbines dot the German landscape with a capacity of more than 32,000 megawatts.
Onshore wind has been one of the unvarnished success stories of Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition. Not only has the number of turbines shot up, but cutting-edge technology has revolutionized the industry: When wind power first arrived on the scene 20 years ago, a 600 kilowatt turbine was par for the course. Today the largest turbines have an output of 7.5 megawatts.
The Berlin-based GWEA is one of the renewable energy sector’s representatives in German politics, media, and the business world, as well as present for the sector on the EU level in Brussels. It boasts 20,000 members, which makes it one of the largest clean energy lobby groups in the world.
Read more about the European wind energy context on Breaking Energy here.
Its goal is straightforward: to pave the way for the growth of both onshore and offshore wind power in Germany for decades to come. “The biggest challenges in front of us now,” GWEA’s CEO Henning Dettmer told Breaking Energy, “are the further development of the Renewable Energy Law and the expansion of the transmission grid. Both of these issues, as well as public acceptance of wind power, are the critical to the welfare of the wind energy branch.”
Dettmer considers the updating and amending of the renewables law since its passage in 2000 to be among the group’s most significant achievements.
The GWEA works together with international wind power groups, such as the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), the Global Wind Energy Council, and the World Wind Energy Association, to boost the acceptance and installation of wind energy within Europe and worldwide. It does this by helping convince other countries of the relevant regulatory framework necessary to make wind prosper. The feed-in tariff mechanism, for example, the secret to the boom in Germany’s clean power, has been replicated in more than 45 countries, thanks in part to lobby groups like the GWEA.
Staying Relevant, Setting an Example
“The German wind power lobby has been extremely successful,” explains Joachim Müller-Soares, editor of the German energy magazine BIZZ Energy Today. “This lobby learned its job from the US, how to network, how to represent its clients in the political and business arena, and in general how to make a name for itself. This kind of lobby effort was new thing for us in the 1990s but they caught on – and do their business well.”
The efforts of the GWEA and other renewable energy lobby groups are probably as essential now as they have ever been in the history of the industry. The current German government, a center-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals, is discussing an overhaul of Germany’s seminal renewables law, the cornerstone of clean power policies in Germany. The rise in energy prices, partially a consequences of the clean energy incentive that pays for integrating renewables into Germany’s energy supply, has thrust the energy transition, the current law, and its costs into he public spotlight.
One of the government’s options is to replace the current feed-in tariff (part of the renewables law) with a quota system like the one in Britain. In the quota model a certain amount of renewable energy is promoted every year. It supposedly facilitates intensified competition among different types of renewable energies and a more efficient employment of subsidies. In theory quota systems reward the “cheapest” technology rather than “picking winners” from the outset.
The GWEA’s Dettmer argues “the quota model is neither effective nor cost effective. It’s not for no reason that the Britons are jettisoning this model and going for something much more like our renewables law,” he says. “Those who want to introduce a quota system are going to have to make it clear that there will be two very different, parallel systems to administer in Germany for a long time to come.”
Moreover, while onshore wind energy production has soared in Germany, the offshore part of the branch has been every slow to get off the ground. The German government wants to see an enormous 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind parks installed in the Baltic and North Seas-the equivalent of 20 large nuclear power reactors. Yet there are only two wind parks in commercial operation, and one of them operates at just a fifth of capacity.
Just to illustrate how far Germany has to go: The government wants to have 7.6 gigawatts (7600 megawatts) of capacity installed by 2020. In total, the farms would cover a patch of sea eight times as large as New York City. Today the combined generation power of Germany’s offshore capacity is only a meager 200 megawatts. Total installed offshore wind capacity in the EU was 3,000 megawatts at the end of 2010.
New legislation, backed by the GWEA, speeds up the expansion of offshore wind farms by introducing a binding offshore grid development plan. In addition-and critically-it specifies a compensation regulation for the construction and operation of grid connections to offshore wind farms.
The GWEA and other groups have been fighting to get regulation streamlined, and to find solutions to both financial and technical obstacles. Signs are that developers and investors are moving forward again and hope to have two more wind parks up and running by next year.
Indeed the GWEA has its work cut out for it. Some critics wonder whether the quantity of onshore wind parks is reaching its limit. The industry has regularly come into conflict with environmentalists opposed to building too much capacity too close residential housing and in the vicinity of nature preserves.
The outcome of the government’s decision to overhaul the renewable energy law will have enormous repercussions for the wind power industry. One thing though is certain: The GWEA will be weighing in the debate it with all its might.
This piece appears on Breaking Energy as part of the Energy Transparency series in partnership with Vestas.