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Wind distance rule looms in Germany’s most populous state

After a sweeping victory in elections last month, a new coalition between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in North-Rhine Westphalia state plans to impose a distance rule for wind power that could kill off most new projects.

“We assume that it is legally safe to implement a distance rule of 1,500 metres to pure and general residential areas,” the two parties say in a 125-page-long coalition agreement, arguing such a rule would help maintain the acceptance for wind energy among the population.

A 1.5km distance rule in Germany’s most populous state (18 million inhabitants) is very likely to kill off nearly all new wind projects in the very densely populated state that includes Cologne and the heavily industrialised and geographically scattered Ruhr area.

After being a wind laggard for many years, North-Rhine Westphalia under the previous Social Democratic-Greens government had greatly increased its wind capacity, with 564MW installed across the state last year, the third largest volume among German states in 2016.

The distance regulation would follow up on similar distance rules in Germany’s largest (by territory) state of Bavaria and in Poland that have brought onshore wind energy there to a near standstill.

The CDU and FDP had won state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia in mid-May, sweeping away a pro-renewables coalition government between the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens in the key state. The elections were seen as the most important test before German general elections in late September.

While Merkel’s CDU in Berlin is pursuing Germany’s Energiewende – its transition from nuclear to renewable energy – some of its state governments have been lukewarm of the transition or are actively working against it.

Bavaria, which is run by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to the CDU, next to its 10H distance rule introduced in 2014 has also undermined federal plans for urgently needed high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines for years that now will have to be built underground, with billions in euros in additional costs and a three-year delay as a consequence.

The FDP that now enters the North-Rhine Westphalia state government was a member of Merkel’s previous government and behind damaging cost discussions that harmed in particular the solar industry. After being kicked out of the Bundestag in 2013, the FDP has arisen from the ashes and is on a winning streak in several state elections, in part running on an anti-wind platform.

The CDU/FDP coalition agreement also says it wants to retract the obligation for the establishment of priority wind zones across the state and end what it calls a privilege for wind energy usage in forests, while making repowering possible in order to reduce the amount of new turbines.