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Saxon energy expert Zeuner: "The costs of electricity generation are falling".

Electricity prices, reliability, climate protection - an interview with the new president of the Association for the Promotion of the Use of Renewable Energies in Saxony, Falk Zeuner. He already knows a few ministers.

Reading time: 6 Minutes

Man sieht Falk Zeuner.
Falk Zeuner is the new president of the Association for the Promotion of the Use of Renewable Energies in Saxony. What does he expect from the energy turnaround? © Jürgen Lösel

From George Moeritz

Mr. Zeuner, do you always turn off the light behind you, are you an energy saver?

Yes, self-confessed energy saver, but not a militant one.

I'm asking about this because you plan wind and solar farms for a living and possibly have an abundance of electricity?

Professionally, I am involved in the production of green electricity, but as a household customer I have to pay prices for green electricity like others. Any increase in the price of electricity also hurts me. However, we are working on a solution that will allow owners or co-owners of electricity generation plants to get the energy to their homes or businesses more cheaply.

How is business going in your Leipzig planning office?

Although we are a Saxon company, we do our business mainly in other German states, in Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony, and as consultants abroad. In Saxony, it is much harder to develop wind farms than elsewhere. It is embarrassing that Saxony is slowest among the Flächenländer in the development of wind energy. As Association for the Promotion of the Use of Renewable Energies (VEE) we set out to change that.

There should be a gold-rush atmosphere in your industry now: Saxony has a green energy minister with lots of plans, and the energy turnaround seems to be in full swing. Or has the energy crisis slowed you down, too?

If anything, the energy crisis has boosted our industry. It has made some people painfully aware of how dependent we have become. Now the realization is slowly filtering through that you can also produce energy at home and don't have to send the money for it abroad. The money for renewables tends to stay here. But there is also a downside.

Which?

Projects have become more expensive, and we are also feeling a massive price increase for equipment. They contain copper, steel and plastic. Rising interest rates have made financing more expensive. But I have to give praise to the German government: Many legislative projects are reducing the damage and advancing the energy transition. But it's a fallacy to think that a green energy minister in Saxony can get a lot done on his own - the energy turnaround also needs other ministries. They would have to work hand in hand now, including the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Regional Development and the Ministry of the Interior. That is not happening in Saxony at the moment.

Why is that?

Solutions that are on the table are not being addressed for relatively short-sighted party-political reasons. You can see this in the choice of words used by leading Saxon politicians. Our Prime Minister Kretschmer does profess his support for renewable energies. But if you look at the tone and the context and the actions, it's not - how do I put this diplomatically now? - is not approached with as much ambition as it should be. Renewables are part of the solution, not the problem. Saxony needs them, as an energy state and an industrial state.

As the new president of VEE Saxony, do you also see yourself as a lobbyist who negotiates with state politicians?

Quite, I have also sat at the table with Mr. Kretschmer and ministers. I will introduce myself again during inaugural visits. We are available as consultants from the field. Many project developers are members with us. We can say what needs to be improved.

Does lobbying work in such a way that you propose texts for laws or regulations, which are then largely implemented with the help of the Ministry of Energy?

No. There are many parties involved, and the process is very complex. The coalition agreement already sets ambitious targets for the expansion of renewable energies. Nevertheless, little progress is being made.

Can the expansion targets for wind and solar energy in the coalition agreement be achieved?

Not at all. At least not the figures for 2024 - and hardly any for 2030. Planning and building a wind farm takes five to ten years, according to previous experience.

But Energy Minister Günther says he has achieved a number of things that should lead to an acceleration. Isn't that right?

Yes, there are, for example now a flexibility clause, otherwise these goals would only be lip service. But in Saxony, regional plans basically determine where energy plants may be built. These regional plans are very complex because they weigh up a great many interests. Now they are to be oriented to the new energy policy goals and revised - but that will again take until 2027. We will probably not have legal certainty for planning until four years from now.

But now any municipality that wants to may allow wind and solar farms on its territory. Doesn't that bring anything?

Unfortunately, there are too few municipalities in Saxony that are willing to advance the energy transition on their territory.

Why is that?

One of the reasons, of course, is how the government expresses itself on the subject. In the past, the topic of wind energy in Saxony was communicated in an exclusively negative way. A lot of porcelain has been smashed.

Is the attitude changing now?

The mood is changing, because the pressure is increasing. The demand for renewable energy is coming from the business community in particular, for example from the Meissen industrial arc. Politicians are increasingly realizing that it is an important location factor. But they must also contribute to a positive mood and name the opportunities. It is an asset. When we talk about quality of life and prosperity, that also includes time, clean air, less traffic, for example.

Will there not be any new plants on a large scale until 2027, or will it start before then?

It will start before then. There are talks with individual municipalities that have recognized the advantages. They see that it makes them more independent and gives them income - 30,000 to 40,000 euros a year from a modern wind turbine. And it leads to the industry not moving away. But even if approval is granted next year, it will still take two years before the gearboxes and blades are manufactured and delivered and the turbine can be erected.

At citizens' meetings, you often hear counter-arguments such as noise or shadows cast by the wind turbines, what do you say then?

I don't want to tell people fairy tales. There is no such thing as generating electricity entirely without side effects. But as a pragmatist, I can make a list and write down the plus and minus points for each technology. There are also disadvantages with wind and solar plants. But what is the alternative? Wind and solar are the cheapest energy sources, with the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages. The trick now is to keep the disadvantages minimal and overcompensate with advantages. There must be an added value for the location.

But the disadvantages still remain ...

I don't want to minimize the disadvantages. But we have to control them so that they remain within the limits. In the approval process, we have to provide expert opinions and studies on this, and that's what we're doing. In Saxony, there is a minimum distance of 1,000 meters between new windmills and residential areas. To comply with the limit, 500 to 700 meters would suffice, depending on the circumstances. Technological progress also ensures that new turbines are quieter. Where old turbines are replaced by modern ones, the yield can be many times higher.

The fact that older plants are being torn down even though they still work disappoints me - doesn't it you?

As a rule, it is not so, but wind turbines run until the end of their service life. Many were designed for 20 years and have already exceeded that age. Financially, it may make sense to replace old turbines with new ones. But most of the turbines I know that are being replaced with new ones have already exceeded their 20-year lifespan.

Strictly speaking, it is not about plants in the forest, but in the forest. Often they are monocultures. In some cases, we are talking about areas where massive deforestation has already taken place. It is a myth that a lot of forest has to be cut down for wind power. Of course, trees have to be cut down, but less than one hectare per wind turbine - namely for the way there and for the crane. The advantage is that in the event of forest fires, wider paths are created there for the fire department and often also fire-fighting ponds. That is an upgrade.

Elsewhere in the world there is more wind and stronger solar radiation - shouldn't Saxony rely on this instead?

That would be wrong. Admittedly, there are sites in Chile with more wind, and hydrogen is also to be produced there and shipped to Europe. But hydrogen electrolysis wastes a lot of energy, and then the gas still has to be liquefied and transported. It is cheaper to produce the energy here. We are perfectly equipped with renewable energy resources here. We have enough sun and wind in Saxony.

However, there is a lack of storage facilities to secure the supply at night and during lulls. What to do?

One example: Leipzig has converted its southern power plant and made it hydrogen-capable in order to become independent of lignite. In the future Hydrogen stored in the caverns near Bad Lauchstädt and could supply all of central Germany for two weeks. No one needs to believe the fairy tale about the dark slack period anymore. Germany is a country of engineers, we are an innovative country. The solutions are all ready to hand, and the energy turnaround can be achieved.

Will electricity become cheaper or more expensive in the long run?

Cheaper. Wind and solar power are cheap. The cost of generating electricity is falling, partly because the technology is improving. Of course, I have to offset investments for storage and grid expansion. But new business models are emerging to finance the storage facilities, because they will take advantage of periods of cheap electricity. The bottom line is that we will have a more climate-friendly, decentralized and renewable energy supply system that will be cheaper than maintaining the old conventional system.

The interview was conducted by Georg Moeritz.

Falk Zeuner is the founder and managing director of Terrawatt Planungsgesellschaft mbH, a Leipzig-based engineering firm with about 20 employees. His professional focus is the planning of wind and solar plants. Sometimes, he says briefly, "I'm a wind miller." In an honorary capacity, Zeuner has been leading since his election in May as successor to Wolfgang Daniels the VEE Association for the Promotion of the Use of Renewable Energies in Saxony.

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