Environment: Why the energy transition is lame

Things are gigantic.

Environment: Why the energy transition is lame

Things are gigantic. 138 meters high, with an unobstructed view over the flat land. On one side are the green fields in the direction of Brandenburg, on the other side the mosaic of houses in the capital. "Pyro" is what the planners at the Teut engineering office call the site of an old fireworks company in Berlin-Pankow, where their two wind turbines turn - two of a total of six on Berlin soil. It took four years for the systems to be up and running. And as things were, that was still pretty fixed.

A new law will take effect on February 1st, which is primarily intended to speed up the planning of wind turbines. One again, you could say - "Germany Tempo" is now the mantra. In the expansion of renewable energies, a turbo is urgently needed if the ambitious goals for green electricity by 2030 are to be achieved. Onshore wind power alone is expected to double from 58 gigawatts in 2022 to 115 gigawatts by 2030. That's seven more years.

The construction of liquid gas terminals on the coast since the start of the Ukraine war is a shining example. It's possible, they said, when the first LNG landing points went into operation after just a few months. Now please just do the same for wind and solar. But is that possible? What helped with LNG and what stands in the way of renewables?

Yes, yes, basically the energy transition is fun

Engineer Elias Brunken and environmental planner Daniel Deppe have a lot to tell about this. The two young planners are committed to green electricity. At Teut they are working on getting wind turbines connected to the grid in Berlin and Brandenburg. And they assure you: yes, yes, basically it's really great fun with the energy transition. "Extremely, I really like doing it," says Deppe. Only: "You have to be up for a discussion and have a thick skin."

So, assuming you have a large property in Brandenburg - or somewhere else, it's just an example - and you want to build a wind turbine, what do you have to do? Brunken and Deppe take a deep breath.

Of course, wind power is only possible in the "suitable area" or in the "priority area" anyway. The federal government has just legally obliged the states to gradually designate at least two percent of their area for this by 2032. But although these areas are specifically designed for the purpose, the test begins anew with each wind turbine. Is the location far enough away from residential buildings? Is it big enough for a 250 meter high turbine with 85 meter long rotor blades? All ownership and usage rights clarified? Then the mapping can begin.

Ice throw, sound, shadow throw

Biotopes, bats, breeding and migratory birds are counted, and since the birds stop by at different times of the year, this logically takes at least a whole year. Then come the reviews. Stability, fire protection, throwing ice, sound, casting shadows. It all goes into the permit application. According to the planners, there are currently four files and twelve data CDs that go to 16 different places - district, nature conservation authority, monument protection authority and so on.

If everything goes smoothly, the authorities need about one to one and a half years to process the case, Brunken and Deppe tell us. If several wind turbines are involved, an environmental impact assessment is usually necessary. If this is the case, according to data from the Wind Agency, the process takes an average of 24 months. The approval is then a big thing for the planners. In their meeting room in the basement, bottles of sparkling wine are ready for the celebration, each one with the abbreviation of the plant. MÜRIII, NKD1 and NKD2 are waiting at the moment.

Negative record: 18 years

But that's not the end of it. Now comes the bidding process. Wind power providers apply for quantities within the scope of the expansion targets and must comply with a price cap specified by the Federal Network Agency. The applicant with the lowest price wins. Once this hurdle has been cleared, the wind turbine is ordered. According to the engineers, the delivery time is currently around 18 months, but material shortages and high steel prices are also having an impact here.

So if everything is really running like clockwork, more than four years have passed before the first low-loader with the giant wings sets off for the construction site of the new windmill - not without permission, of course. The prerequisite is that nobody raises an objection, nobody complains, the authority is not overburdened and the project conceived years ago is still worthwhile at the time x. Statistically, the construction of a wind turbine today takes an average of five to seven years. The negative record is 18 years.

The Chancellor turns on the gas tap

And what about LNG, the liquefied gas that has been so coveted since the beginning of the Ukraine war and has been imported from all over the world? When Chancellor Olaf Scholz symbolically turned on the gas tap at the liquefied natural gas terminal in Lubmin on the Baltic Sea in mid-January, only six months had passed since Deutsche Regas first applied. "That's record speed," says Jan Bonhage from the law firm Hengeler Mueller, which oversees the project. Normally, one would have liked to have been able to count on two to five years.

The new "Germany pace" came about under the pressure of the gas crisis and the horror scenario that millions of citizens would have to freeze in ice-cold apartments in winter. Here, too, there was a separate acceleration law, the LNGG. But what exactly fueled the turbo? Bonhage considers five points to be crucial.

Five points for the planning turbo

The first thing the specialist lawyer mentions is that there is an overriding public interest in the terminals. "You shouldn't underestimate that," says the expert. This plays an important role when an authority can decide one way or the other and weigh up interests. The "overriding public interest" is now also in the Renewable Energy Sources Act, but according to the planners, the interpretation at state level is not clear everywhere.

Second point according to Bonhage: shortened deadlines, for example for public participation. Instead of one month for the layout of the plans and one month for objections, one week applies here. The third factor for the expert is the omission of an environmental impact assessment. Environmental and nature conservation laws still have to be observed, he assures. Only a lengthy additional procedure falls away.

Point four: If opponents of the project object or sue, this has no suspensive effect. "So if you get the approval, you can start right away," explains Bonhage. Fifth, the law facilitates the early start of construction preparation or test operation.

"Decisions are not enough for the goals"

This five-point catalog pretty much corresponds to what wind power planners also want. But the reality is a bit far from that. "The measures decided so far by the traffic light coalition are going in the right direction," says Simon Müller, Germany director of the think tank Agora Energiewende. "But even in total they are not enough to accelerate the procedures to the extent necessary to achieve the 2030 target."

From Müller's point of view, the acceleration law coming on February 1 is only a small step. This would make planning procedures "somewhat less susceptible to lawsuits," says the expert. He has greater expectations of an EU emergency regulation from December: "It basically says: If there is a strategic environmental impact assessment for the area of ​​a wind farm, also with a view to species protection, then it no longer has to be repeated for each individual wind turbine has potential for significant acceleration."

In addition, from Müller's point of view, similar to LNG terminals, projects could be approved provisionally and then construction could begin. Or operators could even - as in the case of the US car manufacturer Tesla in Brandenburg - start at their own risk without a permit. If this is not granted after all, a risk fund could cover the failure, suggests Müller. Faster procedures also require more staff and digitization at the approval authorities.

Environmentalists have concerns

Many conservationists and environmentalists are not comfortable with so much acceleration. For example, the German Environmental Aid is calling for the LNG law to be withdrawn. She criticizes that citizen participation and the right to sue are being curtailed too much and that environmental protection is neglected. LNG and wind power planners counter that the increasingly detailed specifications are simply too lengthy. With wind turbines, the aim should not be to protect each individual bird, but to preserve the species.

The bottom line is, as almost always, a competition of interests, or to put it more politely: a trade-off. And with LNG, it also went smoothly because it was declared the top priority politically and that was clear to everyone involved. One of the people involved in the Lubmin LNG terminal - Deutsche Regas - reports that those responsible met weekly in large groups. E-mails from the office suddenly came outside of normal office hours.

Wind power planner Brunken sees it the same way: "The biggest difference to LNG is the political and social will to implement it. The felt pressure to act was simply much greater at this point." From his point of view, the same political zeal will be needed for the energy transition in the foreseeable future - otherwise it will remain an illusion.

"If all the cogs mesh now, we'll reach the goal," says Agora specialist Müller about the targeted 115 gigawatts of wind power by 2030. "But that requires courage, consistency and comprehensive measures that are still lacking in this form."