German farmers

6 March 1998




German farmers

get a taste for

wind profits

Compared to Britain,

Germany pays generous

tariffs for energy generated

by wind turbines. So its no

surprise that farmers there

have embraced them as a

valuable diversification,

explains Crispin Aubrey

ON the flat coastal plains of northern Germany a transformation has taken place. Travel from the Dutch border north-eastwards towards Denmark along the back roads, and the countryside is alive with gently turning windmills. Not old-fashioned grain-grinders with creaking wooden sails but tall, sleek towers topped by aerodynamic blades, their rotors constantly moving to catch the best of the breeze. In a relatively uneventful landscape of hedgeless fields and scattered settlements, their presence is dramatic but rarely overpowering.

Wind energy has taken off in Germany in a way only dreamed of in Britain. Over the last 10 years, more than 5000 modern electricity-generating windmills have been built, mainly close to the North Sea, but also further inland where the wind is less predictable. This year the total installed capacity of all German windmills reached 2000mW, pushing it well ahead of the UKs 300mW and even knocking the United States off pole position in the world wind power league. In the busiest region, Schleswig Holstein, 10% of the electricity now comes from the wind.

Guarantees to producers

The reason for this explosion in windmill building is relatively simple. In 1991, pressured by the environmental lobby, the German government introduced the Electricity Feeding Law (EFL). This guarantees to all producers of renewable energy, including wind power, a special tariff of roughly 90% of the price paid by domestic electricity consumers. Not only that, but the price is paid to anybody who gains permission to erect a wind turbine, with no upper capacity limit, and for the whole lifetime of the project.

Compared with Britain, where support for renewable energy is limited only to those projects which successfully win a contract in a highly competitive bidding process, the system is eminently straightforward.

The effect of the EFL has been twofold. Firstly, it has encouraged a large number of small investors and landowners to launch themselves into wind energy. Many wind turbines are owned by groups of 50 or more local people who have clubbed together to share the initial investment of £300,000 or more for a single machine. And secondly, the pattern of largely local ownership has tended to reduce the type of opposition which has made wind farming so controversial in Britain.

Up to half of Germanys wind turbines are owned by farmers, among them Jess Jessens, whose 170ha (420-acre) arable holding is set in a low-lying area of reclaimed land just six miles from the North Sea. "Ten years ago people smiled about wind energy," he says. "Now every farmer wants a wind machine." The result is that on a clear day he can stand not far from his farmhouse and see up to 200 windmills.

Mr Jessens got interested in wind turbines at about the same time as he decided to switch to organic cultivation. Both moves have proved equally successful. Production from his entirely wheat operation may have reduced, but he gets a better price by selling to an organic bread company and saves £25,000 a year on agrochemicals. He has also pioneered a drilling method which broadens the distance between rows, allowing space for a green manure crop and increasing the protein in the wheat.

The first wind turbine, a relatively small 30kW machine, went up on Mr Jessenss holding in 1987. This has been followed by 16 more of varying sizes. The largest have 18m (60ft) long blades and a maximum output of 450kW. They are all linked to the regional electricity grid, with the cables buried underground to avoid the clutter of pylons. All told, his windmills produce enough power for about 3000-4000 households.

Farmers link up

The 14 newest turbines are located on 20ha (49 acres) of land he bought specially for the purpose just inland from the sea, where the wind is noticeably stronger. To capitalise this venture he linked up with two other local farmers. The cost of each turbine is about £350,000.

Although Mr Jessens has had to battle hard to negotiate bank loans, he now sees the finances of his wind energy business as relatively secure. With an income of 6p under the Electricity Feeding Law for every unit of electricity he pumps into the grid, he has enough to pay back the bank and cover the costs of maintenance and breakdowns.

"In a good windy year we have earned a little bit of money," he says, "but sometimes we have made a loss." As with other wind farmers, Jessens expects the real income to flow when the turbines are about 10 years old, and their capital cost largely paid off. Meanwhile, there can be an advantage for high earners in setting the investment against tax, allowable under German law.

All Mr Jessenss machines are monitored from a computer in the back room of his farmhouse; wind speed, power output and faults are all carefully registered. Even at night a bleeper tells him if theres a problem. "If we lose just a few hours working in the night that could be several hundred marks," he says, "so we have to keep alert."

He checks the windmills individually every two or three days and has learned to deal with simple faults. Calling out an engineer can prove expensive. Data on the output and breakdown record of all German turbines is reported to and published by a national monitoring body, ensuring that their performance can be checked against manufacturers claims.

Reliability

The only doubtful area for Mr Jessens is in the reliability of the turbines. With a comparatively new technology there are still teething problems. Although covered by the manufacturers warranty, blades in particular have had to be replaced after only a few years because of stress fractures.

Against this, however, can be set the steady improvement in wind turbine technology fostered by an increasingly competitive manufacturing industry. On the back of the EFL, a number of German turbine companies have started up. The largest, Enercon, employs over 800 people and has developed a special gearless wind turbine, one of whose benefits is a reduction in the noise produced by the generator. The result is that wind farmers like Mr Jessens are now able to shop around among a range of mainly German and Danish turbine models.

The guaranteed price paid under the EFL also means that wind farming is not just confined to the windy coasts. In the wooded hills of Nordrhein-Westphalia, 100 miles (160km) from the sea, farmer Jurgen Eben is one of 67 investors in a company especially established to buy a wind turbine. His partners include everyone from office workers to teachers, many of whom are as concerned to be making a stand for a cleaner environment (not burning dirty coal or risking nuclear power) as to make money. Individual share-holdings range from £500-£1700.

"Its more difficult with wind turbines inland because there are more people living here," says Eben, who continues his own pig business with contract work on other farms, "and its less windy. So its not so easy to make a quick profit." The few objectors to the plan – mainly on visual grounds – were not enough, however, to stop the 250kW Danish-built turbine from going up on Ebens 10ha (25-acre) plot last spring. So far it has operated with exemplary reliability.

As in other parts of Germany, wind energy is encouraged in Nordrhein-Westphalia by a supportive regional government. This means, among other things, that each district has to designate certain areas of land as suitable for wind turbine development. This positive discrimination in favour of wind, as well are other renewable sources like biogas and solar power, makes the eventual planning approval process much more straightforward than in Britain.

Cloud on horizon?

The main cloud on the horizon of German wind energy comes from the consistent opposition to the EFL from the large electricity supply companies. The extra cost of buying wind energy has to be passed on to their customers, they argue, making them less competitive in a power market about to be opened up across Europe.

These claims are disputed by the German Wind Energy Association, which represents over 4000 turbine owners. "We have shown that the costs of wind energy and conventional power are very similar," says president Peter Ahmels, "especially when hidden costs like nuclear insurance are included. The real reason for their opposition is that they dont like private people taking some of their market."

For farmers like Mr Jessens, there is another important reason why building windmills makes sense. In an economic climate where German farmers, like many others, have seen their incomes falling, wind power could be crucial to their survival. "Its important to think about the environment and pollution," he adds, "because without that we have no future."

A row of wind turbines on the North Friesland coast of Germany. Turbines like this are capable of producing 2000mW, more than six times the total output of wind farms in the UK. All photos: Paul Glendell

Above: Peter Ahmels, president of the German Wind Energy Association, on his farm. Costs of wind energy and conventional power are similar, he says.

Right:A 1.5mW wind turbine farm under construction in Lower Saxony.

Nearly half of German turbines are owned by farmers. Often several farmers link up to ease huge start-up costs. Real income starts to flow after 10 years.

Jess Jessens, a 170ha (470- acre) arable farmer in a low-lying area. He joined forces with two local farmers to fund the set-up of a total of 17 windmills.

A wind turbine blade under construction at Enercons factory at Aurich, East Friesland in Lower Saxony. The company has developed a quieter, gearless turbine which should do much to please local inhabitants.


See more