An article over at the Economist sums up the obstacles facing offshore wind in Germany fairly well, as a comparison with recent forecasts reveals. But while the report is well researched and accurate, Craig Morris says it nonetheless misses the point by taking offshore wind to be a crucial part of the Energiewende.
In a recent article, the Economist says that Germany’s experiment with offshore wind “may prove an expensive disaster.” There isn’t really anything the article gets wrong aside from the estimate that underground power cables may cost 25 times as much as overhead cables (I’m sure the author got that figure somewhere, but it is easily 10 times greater than what I’m used to seeing).
A report from May for grid operator Tennet, which handles grid connections along the North Sea coast, finds that the government will fail to reach its target of 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020, with only 3,700 to 5,900 being considered feasible by 2023. Media reports in Germany also claim that government officials themselves only believe that 6,000 megawatts is possible by 2020.
But the Economist might be surprised to hear the general response in Germany: who cares? While offshore wind is certainly a clean source of electricity and should be developed, the German wind sector is generally lukewarm about offshore. Last year, the head of the BWE, Germany’s wind power association, argued that new onshore turbines can reach the same level of reliability (called the “capacity factor”) as offshore turbines, and this year the organization – under new leadership – has reiterated its focus on onshore wind.
The difference in ownership structure is the reason. In Germany, the onshore wind sector grew up as a ground roots movement of locals wishing to become independent of the very energy corporations now promoting offshore wind. Indeed, the BWE is itself best thought of not as an industry organization (like the American Wind Energy Association or RenewableUK, formerly the British Wind Energy Association), but as an association of citizen wind turbine owners.
The Economist focuses on offshore so much because it believes that big energy firms will still be needed in the energy transition. Only a few days after the report, the British Prime Minister officially opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm, the London Array. The British solve NIMBYism by concentrating installations in places where there is little political resistance; offshore turbines are hard to see, so few complain.
Germans solve NIMBYism by letting citizens fight things out among themselves democratically; normal people drive the energy transition in Germany. In the 1980s, the man who got Germany’s first feed-in tariffs for photovoltaics implemented in the city of Aachen was a military officer working through his church. In the 1990s, the couple that spearheaded the first forced buyback of a municipal grid was a doctor and his wife. Today, two young women are spearheading the campaign to buy back Berlin’s grid. The companies putting up offshore turbines have resisted such changes up to now.
In the UK, corporations use NIMBYism to their advantage, which is why there is so little onshore wind there owned by citizens and so great a focus on offshore owned by corporations. So when you read that the offshore wind sector in Germany is progressing slowly, keep in mind that the Germans who have supported the energy transition for the past few decades see offshore wind as an enticement to the corporations who have opposed the transition for so long to finally get on board. And if offshore projects are not on schedule, the Germans will just go ahead without these firms – as they have been doing since 1991.