The sound of the wind is music to the ears of Hermann Albers. In fact, he only gets uneasy when a silence suggests something is wrong with his farm’s five 140-meter windmills.
Mr. Albers, the president of the German Wind Energy Association, known by its German acronym BWE, lives in Friesland, a region in the far north of Germany with more wind—and more windmills—than any other part of the country. But even there, more and more windmills are being temporarily shut down, even on the breeziest of days.
Mr. Albers has been affected, too. “My own turbines have been hit with output limitations,” he told Handelsblatt.
The shutdown has nothing to do with the wind in itself. The problem lies with Germany’s creaking power network infrastructure: There simply are not enough power lines to carry all the green energy from the windy north to the rest of the country.
The revolution in German electricity production—the shift from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewables, often called the “energy transition”—means that already one-third of the country’s electricity is produced from clean, renewable sources. More than 26,000 turbines generate power from the wind.
But the extraordinary speed of wind power’s expansion has pushed the country’s power grid toward the limits of its capacity. Every day, network authorities step in to protect the fragile system from heavy fluctuations in solar- and wind-based power, struggling to maintain network equilibrium. From their control centers, they turn power plants on and off, and bring wind and solar parks on and off stream. All of which costs money.
“The increased importance of renewable energy could bring on a cost explosion, ultimately paid for by industry.”
In 2015, this constant blackout protection cost €1 billion, around $1.12 billion. Jochen Homann, president of the German Federal Network Agency, fears that price is about to jump sharply. Beginning in 2022, when the last atomic power station will be taken out of action, he warns that grid-protection operations could cost up to €4 billion annually.
Barbara Minderjahn, managing director of the Industrial Energy Association, or VIK, which represents large industrial energy consumers, wonders who is willing to pick up that tab. “The price of industrial electricity is already extremely high in comparison with the rest of the world,” she told Handelsblatt.
Above all, she fears that the increased importance of renewable energy—by 2025 it will make up something like 45 percent of German electricity—could bring on a cost explosion, ultimately paid for by industry. That is something no one wants, according to Ms. Minderjahn. But to avoid that, the energy generation industry has to figure out how to “get stability and flexibility into the network at the same time,” she said.
The energy sector is well aware of the problem. “If we want renewables to remain an important part of the system, we really have to figure this one out,” said Hans-Dieter Kettwig, managing director of Enercon, the largest German wind-power technology company. He has repeatedly demanded that his sector begin to come up with solutions about how to better integrate its clean energy into the broader electricity network.
Mr. Kettwig took over the helm of Enercon in 2012, after the company’s veteran founder Aloys Wobben retired. Enercon is among the world’s largest wind energy companies, employing over 20,000 people worldwide. In 2014, it had revenues in excess of €4.9 billion and profits of €490 billion. As well as his business acumen, Mr. Kettwig is famous for his sharp tongue and outspoken views.
He says he is well aware of the network problem. “It is ecological and economic madness to turn off wind turbines when there is strong wind, or simply to waste the energy,” he said. “But unfortunately, that is what happens, thanks to the lack of power lines or poor use of existing lines.”
Enercon is also working on battery technology, which will allow wind power to be stored and then later released into the network. Mr. Kettwig hopes a pilot project will soon allow the Oldenburg region to become 100 percent green-energy powered.
The crucial step for the renewable sector, he added, must now be to invest in more systemic technology. “Anyone who just concentrates on building cheap wind turbines does not have a sustainable business,” he said. “The whole green energy milieu has to engage with questions of storage, intelligent networks and data flows.”
“Anyone who just concentrates on building cheap wind turbines does not have a sustainable business.”
Mr. Kettwig remains an evangelist for wind power, even with increasing unease in Germany at the large numbers of wind turbines now dotting the landscape. He said wind turbine technology has improved beyond all recognition in the last 10 years. Future improvements in wind-power generation, he added, will not come from building new wind farms, but in replacing existing, outdated turbines.
“If we can replace outdated machines with innovative ones, which can generate more than three times as much power, then we won’t need more turbines,” he said. “We may even need fewer.” He also points out that the new windmills often have slower rotation speeds, unlike the older turbines, whose hectic spinning most bothers many people.
Enercon, Mr. Kettwig noted, will continue to offer full-service wind-energy technology to consumers, which is slightly more expensive, but more efficient. The industry has moved beyond the era, he added, when government subsidies kept it alive. Still, he recently campaigned to maintain a regulation mandating a minimum number of wind turbines built every year. “If that minimum had been removed, it would be a death blow to the industry,” he said.
Franz Hubik covers renewable energy for Handelsblatt in Düsseldorf. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.