ROTHENBERG, Germany—Germany has set some of the most ambitious goals of any nation for shifting from fossil fuels to greener energy. Now the centerpiece of that push—onshore wind power—is slumping, prompting the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the bankruptcies of wind-power developers and turbine manufacturers.
Wind power, often seen as a clean, abundant energy source, has faced growing bureaucratic hurdles and acrimony in communities out to block the erection of new turbines.
One vocal group of 300 was out on a crisp January evening, piercing the usual quiet of Rothenberg with drums, whistles and a recording of a wind turbine’s whir blasting through a megaphone. With a march the size of a third of the village’s population, locals hoped to kill a wind-park project they feared would destroy birds and tourism in this corner of the Odenwald mountains northeast of Heidelberg.
“I don’t see a positive contribution for our planet in putting up wind turbines in the middle of a forest that’s low on wind,” said Angelika Beisel, who runs a small hotel in town and helped organize the march.
The federal and regional governments are set to meet on Thursday to discuss concrete steps to revive wind power’s expansion in Germany. Berlin’s Energiewende—or energy-transformation program—has led to a total of 29,456 onshore wind turbines in the country. But the effort notched a net gain of just 243 turbines in 2019—55% fewer than were erected in 2018 and 80% fewer than in 2017, according to data from the wind-power industry.
That poses a problem for the government of Angela Merkel, which is counting on wind power to meet the energy goals it set out in a plan that many experts view as a blueprint for other countries. Those goals aim for 65% of Germany’s power consumption to come from nonnuclear renewables in 2030, up from roughly 42% in 2019. Germany has also vowed to stop burning coal by 2038.
“If we continue at the current rate, we will face a massive renewables gap,” said Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende, a think tank supporting the energy transition.
The slowdown has cost roughly 40,000 jobs in the past three years, the premiers of Germany’s wind-rich northern states said last year in a warning to Ms. Merkel to act to shore up the effort to move to wind.
The industry began to struggle in 2017 after Germany stopped granting a fixed subsidy for wind projects on land. Instead, it began auctioning off subsidized projects, with the winning bid coming from the producer offering the lowest price per kilowatt of energy. This change, some analysts say, has rendered investments in wind turbines riskier, especially for small cooperative projects started by individuals.
The German crisis, aggravated by a continuing global price war on wind turbines, has led to casualties. Last year, Hamburg-based wind-turbine maker Senvion became insolvent. Germany’s largest turbine maker, Enercon, is cutting 3,000 jobs.
Even though surveys show Germans overwhelmingly back the energy transition, wind’s problems are now compounded by more than 900 local protest movements across the country, according to Vernunftkraft, or “power of reason,” a nationwide protest group.
They argue wind turbines endanger birds and precious forests, adversely affect health, and devalue property—all while doing little to lower emissions.
Vera Krug has been fighting wind turbines in the Odenwald forest for four years. She spends hours documenting their effect on protected bird species such as black storks and red kites, for use in court cases under way against 15 wind turbines on three hills near her house.
Activists there have spent roughly €250,000 ($282,000) for lawyers, legal fees and expert evaluations.
“We’re being portrayed as villains or climate-change deniers but we’re not the ones destroying something here,” Ms. Krug said.
Risks to birds and bats from wind turbines are hotly debated. The government says more birds die by colliding with glass facades every year than perish in the turbines’ rotor blades.
The government says scientific research hasn’t identified any health damages caused by wind turbines amid disagreement about the threshold above which the noise they make can be perceived and be potentially harmful.
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