Bad Laws and Poor Regulation Stunt Germany’s Clean Energy Drive

One task of Germany’s incoming government, regardless which party heads it, has to be to gut the blizzard of red tape. Paul Hockenos explains.

Administrative lapses delay the extention of Germany´ s solar power and wind power on- and offshore. (Photo by Vattenfall, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The planning and approval processes of energy transition projects are
obstructing the massive rollout of renewables. Germany’s ungainly bureaucracy has the reputation of being an Olympic sport – and in the case of renewable energy development this rap is, unfortunately, right on the mark. For years now, investment capital for clean tech in Germany has been itching to enter the market. The path there, however, is so thick with legal impediments and other hurdles that many interested parties—start-ups, small businesses, prosumers, and established manufacturers alike—simply judge it not worth the risk and hassle.

A decade ago, the Energiewende, the heralded German renewable energy rollout, wowed the world with its stunning successes. But today, the likes of regulatory bottlenecks and other administrative lapses have caused it to skid to a virtual halt. A resumption and full-throttle acceleration of Germany’s pace now is all the more urgent in light of the country’s conclusion of its nuclear power phase out (end of 2022), the international gas crisis, and the ever-greater pressure to exit coal as fast as possible. More renewable energy, aided by such dispatchable energy sources as natural gas and hydrogen, is the solution, not a resumption of nuclear power as countries like France, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are calling for.

The problem is that since 2018, wind power’s buildout, the Energiewende’s workhorse, has slowed to a crawl as a result of administrative planning complexities and interest groups abusing the legal system to thwart development.  A lack of permits, sluggish licensing procedures, and construction area limitations are the chief impediments to new turbine construction. The situation is so dire that a third to half of auction volumes have gone undersubscribed in recent years: in other words, investors just aren’t ready to make the jump even though the auction conditions are highly favorable.

Indeed, according to the think tank Agora Energiewende, this has to change for Germany to meet its 2030 and 2045 climate goals. Germany must triple the renewables in its net renewables power production by 2045, it argues. This implies a nine-fold increase in solar PV capacity, twelve-fold in offshore wind power, and three-fold increase in onshore wind power capacity.

The German government’s recently updated Renewable Energy Resources Act (EEG) states that hitting 2030 goals requires 100 GW of new solar PV capacity, 8.4 GW of bioenergy, 71 GW of onshore wind, and 20 GW of offshore wind. And the country’s transmission grids, also thwarted in recent years by regulation and protest, must be expanded to handle the increased loads.

At its current rate, a snail’s pace in contrast to years past, Germany will never hit these goals.

According to the calculations of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), the country’s largest energy sector association, a major rethink of priorities must happen leading to a sweeping overhaul of the regulatory process. The cause of the logjam, BDEW and others in the sector argue, lies in Germany’s cumbersome regulations. “Regular planning and approval procedures,” it argues, “are currently associated with major hurdles. They take a long time and decisions are often challenged in court.” The expansion of renewable energy generation, argues BDEW, should be declared as “in the public interest,” which would endow the project with the legal force to override many of the obstacles that regularly block it.

A recent BDEW study illustrates how their removal or modification could unleash the forces, foremost private capital, that can swiftly ratchet up capacity and production. The BDEW report bundles together the critique of the solar, wind, biogas, and grid services industries calling for changes in material law, planning law, and approval procedures.

In the field of material law, for example, the BDEW claims that unclear and unnecessary bureaucratic measures slow and deter investors from entering the market. It comes up with a long list of changes that, together, it argues, would alter the bigger picture significantly.

Controversially, though not without some merit, BDEW argues that Germany’s environmental hurdles to clean-energy development are simply excessive, and provide naysayers, such as Not in My Backyard Movement activists, with a weapon that they can and do wield very effectively to impede wind turbine and grid projects. At least some of these impediments could be removed or lowered at little risk to the natural world, the study claims.

In terms of planning, onshore wind and grid expansion are held up by regulations that severely curtail their use of land. Onshore wind developers say the distance from which they can build turbines from the nearest residential area must be shortened: some states insist upon a minimum distance rule of 1,000 meters (.6 miles) which complicates things further up, since it’s within the individual states authority to determine this threshold. In Bavaria, Germany’s largest state, wind farms need to be built at ten times the distance of the tip height of a wind turbine, which for new turbines can amount to around 2 kms (1.2 miles). This draconian regulation has brought onshore wind development in Bavaria to a virtual halt.

Although the revised EEG, says the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE), introduced changes in the right direction, they were much too minimal to put Germany on track to meet its set target of 65 percent renewables in electricity consumption by 2030. “This requires repowering [of wind turbines] in the first place, and a new start must be made with PV in urban areas including no limits on plant size,” the BEE argues. Other priorities include the improved integration of prosumer plants and the promotion of self-consumption. As for bioenergy, the provision of back-up capacity must be adequately rewarded.

In order to satisfy these reasonable demands, Germany’s next government is going to have to take scissors in hand and cut away the bureaucracy as if it were an Olympic event. It should aid clean energy production the same way it bolstered the automobile industry for decades. That, obviously, is a recipe for success.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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