Fritz Vahrenholt, Hamburg’s former environmental senator, was one of the pioneers of Germany’s Energiewende. Today, he finds its implementation miserable and believes that the new federal government urgently needs to change course in response to growing public resistance against more and more wind turbines.
Fritz Vahrenholt in the offices of the German Wildlife Foundation in Hamburg. The former Hamburg environment senator leads the organisation since 2012
Fritz Vahrenholt, 68, always liked to argue against the mainstream. As Hamburg’s environmental senator in the 1990s, the Social Democrat fought with environmental organisations and the Greens. As the founder of the wind turbine manufacturer Repower Systems in Hamburg – now Senvion – and RWE’s subsidiary Innogy in Essen, Germany, he was a pioneer of the green energy transition (Energiewende), which was rejected by large parts of industry at that time. Today, Vahrenholt, the director of the German Wildlife Foundation, is critical about the expansion of wind power. He is calling for the deceleration of Germany’s transformation of the energy system.
WELT AM SONNTAG: Mr. Vahrenholt, what do you think of the coalition agreement between CDU/CSU and SPD with regards to energy and climate policy?
FRITZ VAHRENHOLT: When it comes to energy policy, the 177 pages of the coalition agreement are an act of stupidity. In 2019 and 2020, the expansion of wind power in Germany is set to be massively accelerated even though nobody knows what to do with all this wind power in times of heavy winds. And when there is little wind, the expansion does not help, as electricity production then remains close to zero. It is like the foolish acts the people of Schilda (Schildbürger) who tried to carry sacks of light into the windowless town hall.
WAMS: Rainer Baake (Green Party) who for many years had been Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Environment and later in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, resigned this week, claiming that he did not support the climate and energy policy of the new coalition government. Baake is considered the most important architect of Germany’s Energiewende.
FRITZ VAHRENHOLT: Baake’s resignation is a stroke of luck for German energy policy. He has played a decisive role in shaping the green energy transition and is responsible for its undesirable developments. If he had his way, the energy transition would have been even more expensive: He wanted to reduce the EEG levy for wind and solar power while consumers would have to pay through new levies on heating oil and gas and the drivers with a further fuel tax. Thank God he didn’t succeed.
What is your main criticism about the Energiewende?
With our move towards intermittent wind and solar energy we have reached a dead end. Correcting the undesirable developments by imposing ever-increasing costs on households and drivers, that smells like a planned economy. A few years ago, the then Federal Minister of the Environment, Peter Altmaier (CDU), who will now become Federal Minister of Economics and Energy, estimated the possible total costs of the Energiewende at up to one trillion – i.e. thousand billion – euro. This is destroying the competitiveness of Germany as a location for industry. In his new office, he must do everything possible to ensure that this does not become reality.
With a growing number of wind farms in the country, this could be difficult to achieve.
Resistance to this development will increase significantly, in particular in regions where many wind farms already exist, such as in the state of Brandenburg. There, people are paying the highest electricity prices, not just for the wind energy but also because wind turbines are increasingly being turned off. Yet East German citizens have to pay as if these idle wind farms were still producing electricity. This is also happening in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The resistance against wind power is already supported nationwide by 1000 grassroot organisations. This opposition is something like the new anti-nuclear movement.
You yourself helped to develop wind power in Germany. Aren’t you ultimately jointly responsible for all the mistakes you mentioned?
No, for two reasons: At the time, we wanted to prove that electricity from wind power in Germany could become one pillar of several of energy supply. This proof has long since been provided. Now the existing wind farms would have to be efficiently integrated into our supply system before we can build new ones. Secondly, Repower Systems was a pioneering company in the use of offshore wind power in Germany. At RWE Innogy, we always believed that the future of wind power would primarily be offshore. The power output of offshore wind turbines is much greater and more reliable than onshore. And, unlike onshore sites, there are no conflicts between offshore wind farms and their neighbours.
At the German Wildlife Foundation you are working against the strong expansion of wind power in Germany.
Many people have only just found interest in nature conservation in response to the rampant expansion of wind power. The only way to stop new wind farms today is to protect endangered bird species. Around 12,000 birds of prey alone are killed each year by wind turbines, including the rare red kite. Hundreds of thousands of bats have been killed by wind turbines.
Manufacturers of wind turbines claim that only by increasing the number of turbines could costs be reduced further.
The cost reduction of turbines is no longer relevant. It’s the cost of storing intermittent wind or solar power that is exorbitant. That cost must be added. We have phased out nuclear power while nobody is building gas-fired power plants because they are no longer cost-effective – yet renewable energy alone can’t guarantee energy supply. We currently use coal-fired power plants for this purpose. If we really only had 15 years remaining for effective climate protection, as many claim, we might have to put up with all this nonsense. But we have more time for climate protection than just 15 years. We have time until the year 2100. Our biggest mistake is that we are too overhasty in our rush.
You say that climate change is progressing slower than expected, giving the international community more time. The majority of climate scientists and policymakers don’t share your thesis.
Due to natural factors, we will see temperatures and climate change moving sideways over the next 15 years: solar activity will weaken until 2030 in a way we haven’t seen in 200 years. The 60-year cycle of the Atlantic oscillation will enter its cold phase. This view is shared by the US space agency Nasa, among others. The Energiewende will have a growing acceptance problem in our society. It is not getting warmer or only slightly warmer, but we are destroying nature and prosperity in Germany. One thing is clear: we must move away from carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2100. The time for change is not two legislative periods, but two generations. After all, we cannot fix 100 percent of energy technology that is available today for the future, since we must also consider new technologies, including the opportunities that nuclear fusion offers in the future.
Do you doubt that there is man-made climate change?
On the contrary, carbon dioxide is a climate-relevant greenhouse gas and mankind contributes to its increase. But it makes a huge difference whether CO2’s climate effect increases global temperature by one degree or 2.5 degrees Celsius if CO2 levels are doubled this century. This is the range published in the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the next five years we will see that the rise in global temperature will be lower than is generally predicted. As a scientist, I always question myself. Today, however, global temperatures are back to 2015 levels after the natural increase in temperature due to an extraordinarily strong El Niño.
Which steps to you think will further advance the energy transition in Germany?
It is imperative that we have effective and economically viable storage capacity before we can expect serious progress with the Energiewende. We should shift all R&D funding earmarked for wind or solar installations to research into energy storage systems. Natural gas, on the other hand, must be given greater significance as a transitional energy. We need new sources of natural gas, in addition to a second Nordstream pipeline from Russia, we also need import terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG). In southern Germany, natural gas power plants must be built to replace decommissioned nuclear power plants. We must be open to new solutions. Putting up new wind turbines somewhere in a forest is stupid. Germany can do better than that.
Fritz Vahrenholt: Environmentalist
His book “Seveso is everywhere” (1978) about chlorine chemistry and dioxin poison made Fritz Vahrenholta pioneer of Germany’s environmental movement. After a political career, particularly as Hamburg’s environmental senator from 1991 to 1997, Vahrenholt, 68, a Social Democrat and a chemist with a PhD, moved to industry in the late 1990s. As founder of Repower Systems in Hamburg and the RWE subsidiary Innogy in Essen, he set the industrial foundations of Germany’s green energy transition. Since 2012, Vahrenholt has been the sole director of the German Wildlife Foundation in Hamburg. His 2012 book “Die kalte Sonne” (The Neglected Sun), in which he doubts the generally accepted pace of climate change, generated national and international attention. [He is a member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council]