Germany’s onshore wind additions last year plunged to their lowest level since 1998, prompting demands by the sector for the government to abstain from a planned distance rule and take action against the collapse - or risk the loss of tens of thousands more jobs in Europe’s biggest wind industry.

With 1.078GW in gross additions of wind power on land, the expansion was the lowest since the passing of Germany’s landmark Renewable Energies Act (EEG) in 2000 that for the first time had introduced substantial levels of feed-in tariffs (FIT) in a large, advanced economy.

Gross additions were actually lower even than in 1999, the first year more than 1.5GW in new onshore wind capacity had been added, according to data by Deutsche WindGuard commissioned by the German wind energy association (BWE) and the VDMA Power Systems group that represents manufacturers.

As 97MW in wind power capacity was decommissioned, net onshore wind additions in 2019 only reached 981MW, bringing the country’s cumulated onshore wind generation capacity to 53.9GW.

The expansion last year was even below the 1.5GW still predicted by the wind groups in mid-2019, and down from 2.4GW added in 2018 (net 2.15GW). And - given an expected growing demand for power in an electrifying society – it was a far cry from the around 5GW per year deemed necessary to reach Germany’s 65%-percent renewable power target by 2030.

"The effects of the expansion lull on employment and value creation in the wind industry must now be urgently overcome in order to maintain the substance in Germany,” said VDMA Power Systems manging director Matthias Zelinger.

“The wind industry has already had to react to the declining production for the domestic market with drastic reductions in employment. If the market stagnates at this level, the loss of demand from Germany alone threatens to take away another 25% of the workforce.”

The estimate does not even take into account a shift of production to export markets, Zelinger added.

“Without a domestic market, Germany cannot maintain its technological leadership in the wind industry.”

The wind groups called upon the government to refrain from a plan to introduce a general distance of 1km between new wind projects and the nearest settlement, and reiterated demands to Berlin and federal states to overcome the low level of expansion by taking immediate measures to obtain more permits and land.

“New hurdles such as general distance regulations would aggravate the situation and lead to a loss of about 40% of the potential wind areas in Germany,” BWE president Hermann Albers said.

"In order to fill tender volumes with projects and to achieve expansion and climate protection targets, identified and long known obstacles to permits must be removed as quickly as possible and more areas must be declared [fit] for wind turbines. This requires an agreement between the Federal Government and states before the end of spring.”

The abysmally low expansion figures also had a political repercussion in Germany.

Opposition Green Party energy expert in the Bundestag, Julia Verlinden, blamed energy and economics minister Peter Altmaier from the Christian Democrats for the collapse.

"With the change to a tendering system, the government has capped the expansion of wind energy and massively deteriorated conditions," Verlinden said.

"Rising insecurities such as stagnant permitting processes or unsettled nature conservation questions have not been answered by the government. Instead, the [Christian Democratic] Union faction is causing more uncertainty through a superfluous debate on a general distance rule."

The government, meanwhile, engaged in mutual accusations between ministries on Twitter. While environment minister Svenja Schulze from the Social Democrats said a general distance rule would choke off wind power on land, Altmaier's economics ministry blamed the environment ministry for blocking to put in practice proposals to revive the wind sector.

A distance rule would be particularly damaging for the increasing number of repowering projects in Germany, the BWE stressed. By the end of 2020, around 4GW of currently installed wind power capacity will be phased out of EEG support - making many old wind farms prime candidates for repowering.

"Repowering should be possible under facilitated conditions on the affected existing areas, also in view of the distance regulations under discussion," Albers said.

For 2020, the wind associations expect an expansion of 1.4-1.8GW of wind power on land, if obstacles to permits were to be removed and new hurdles avoided.

UPDATES to add Green Party comment, government infighting on Twitter