On the road with the €9 ticket – Part 1: visit to Germany’s largest solar park

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In Germany this summer, regional public transport can be used for 9 euros per month. Innovation Origins takes this opportunity to visit a number of future projects. In this issue, we visit Germany’s largest solar park in the state of Brandenburg.

Many regional trains connect Berlin with the countryside of Brandenburg. One of the shortest lines is the RB25 service to Werneuchen. The minibus departs from Berlin Ostkreuz then winds its way through the Lichtenberg and Marzahn neighborhoods into East Berlin to Ahrendsfelde station where houses give way to fields and forests.

From there the train continues its journey on a single track and after about three quarters of an hour we arrive at our destination and everyone gets off. Most of the passengers are commuters who have left the city because, for example, it has become too expensive, too stressful or simply because they like peace and quiet.

Werneuchen also enjoys some fame for a small airport where pilots can get their pilot’s license, but one thing makes Werneuchen really unique. A few kilometers by bike is Germany’s largest solar park: the Solar park EnBW Solarpark Weesow-Willmersdorf.

The zonnepark Weesow-Willmersdorf is vanuit de lucht.  Photo EnBW
The Weesow-Willmersdorf solar park seen from the sky. Photo EnBW

465,000 solar modules

The road from the station to it is about as long as the road through the park. To the left and right of the bike path are literally thousands of solar panels. They number 465,000, to be precise, with a capacity of 187 Megawatt peak (MW). For comparison, the largest park in the Netherlands (in Groningen) has 300,000 solar panels with a capacity of 120 MW.

The site is absolutely gigantic: 164 acres (nearly 250 football fields) plus 45 acres where EnBW intends to give the whole thing a natural look, with fruit trees, shrubs, oaks, mountain ash and maples.

Inside the fence, a herd of sheep keeps the grass clean. Everyone can admire it up close, as the park is criss-crossed with cycle paths and walking paths. Visitors can also climb a small artificial mound to get a good view of everything. EnBW spokeswoman Ramona Sallein expects many people to take advantage of this.

Pilot project

The park is in many ways a pilot project, she says via a video link. One of the major unique factors of the park is that no grants flow into it. This would normally be what is called EEG grantswhich represents the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz. This is a German law that guarantees a fixed price for the green electricity produced.

However, these EEG subsidies only apply to parks up to 20 MW. Beyond that, the energy suppliers have to bear the costs themselves. Economies of scale play a decisive role in this respect. Sometimes, according to Sallein, an interim solution is chosen by dividing a project into at least two parts, one part of 20 MW and the rest without subsidies. But in the case of Weesow-Willmersdorf, the subsidies have been completely eliminated. Early on, EnbW concluded a long-term contract with Covestro for the purchase of a third of the electricity produced by the solar park.

Bezoekers krijgen een goede indruk van het solarpark vanaf een kleine kunstmatige heuvel midden in het park.  Photo by Maurits Kuypers
Visitors can get a good idea of ​​the solar park from a small artificial mound in the middle of the park. Photo by Maurits Kuypers

100 million euros

Another innovation concerns funding. EnBW has invested 100 million euros in the project. Co-financiers are often sought upstream for these large sums. This was not done for this park due to the experimental nature of the project.

In March this year, the park had been connected to the power grid for exactly one year and, according to Sallein, everything is going according to plan. The first quarter of 2022 had even been slightly above expectations, thanks to the help of the very sunny month of March.

The park was not only difficult from a technical point of view. It was also crucial to involve local residents as much as possible. For example, EnBW plans to organize visit days and nature also has an important role to play. Inside the fences, as mentioned earlier, are the sheep, but foxes have also been seen, along with other mammals, birds, and insects.

Sallein says some openings have been made in the 10-kilometer security fence around the park, big enough for small animals, but too small for wolves. “Because there are more and more of them in Brandenburg. Protecting the sheep was a prerequisite.

Nature 2000

Along the park is also a Natura 2000 site, the Weesower Luch, which according to the information board is particularly important because of the marshes in the middle. For Salllein, solar parks and nature reserves go very well together. One advantage, for example, is that less fertilizer is needed.

Around the solar park, you can also see many wind turbines, but these have nothing to do with the solar park, Sallein points out. “We would like to build projects that combine solar and wind energy in the future. This undoubtedly brings additional cost advantages. But putting it into practice is problematic because of the different authorization procedures. For example, the average construction time for a wind farm is 7 years, while for solar panels it is 2 to 3 years. This tends to make combined projects nearly impossible.

Het Natura 2000-gebied Weesower Luch grenst direct aan het solarpark Weesow-Willmersdorf.  Photo by Maurits Kuypers
The Natura 2000 Weesower Luch area directly borders the Weesow-Willmersdorf solar park. Photo by Maurits Kuypers

gift from God

The Weesow-Willmersdorf park is capable of producing enough electricity for 50,000 homes. Which, according to Sallein, would be much more if the other parks in the region were also taken into account. In fact, EnBW has commissioned two more such megaprojects in eastern Brandenburg this year, both with an output of 150 MW. One of the parks is near the village with the wonderful name of Gottesgabe (gift of God), the other near Alttrebin.

Together, the three parks represent nearly 500 MW. All of Brandenburg had a total installed capacity of 4,000 MW at the end of last year. The overall EnBW figure for the whole of Germany is around 800 MW. Besides Brandenburg, Bavaria also has a relatively large amount of solar energy.

But this still needs to be increased by much more. EnBW, like other German energy producers, wants to accelerate the energy transition and solar parks are a relatively easy way to achieve this. The goal is for half of the electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. EnBW is now just above the 40% mark. A sum of 4 billion euros is available for this purpose over the period 2021-2025.

Farmers know which land is most suitable

One of the advantages of East Brandenburg, according to Sallein, is that it has a relatively large number of infertile sandy soils. “That’s why cooperation with farmers is important. They know better than anyone which arable land is the least fertile and can therefore be better used for solar parks.

But arable land alone will not get Germany where it needs to be, energy experts are well aware. To achieve the government’s objectives, everything must happen at the same time. There needs to be more solar farms, more rooftop solar panels, more onshore and onshore wind power, and a stronger, more efficient electricity grid.

We need to become faster and more digital,” summarized EnBW board member Georg Stamatelopoulos at the opening of the park in Weesow-Willmersdorf last year. “Procedures must become faster and legal certainty for investors must be greater.”

The Berlin government has set itself the goal of increasing the proportion of green electricity to 80% by 2030. According to Stamatelopoulos, to achieve this, at least 10,000 MW of solar panels must be added each year. Whether on the ground or on the roofs does not matter. Germany is now operating at a rate of about 5,000 additional MW per year. So there is still a lot of work to do. Sallein: “That’s why we are working on more projects like Weesow-Willmersdorf.”

EnBW in transition since 2012

EnBW (Energie Baden-Württemberg) is one of Germany’s largest energy providers with headquarters in Karlsruhe. The company has been in transition since 2012. This has a lot to do with Germany’s nuclear phase-out. The aim was to increase the share of renewable energies in their portfolio from 12% to 40% by 2020. Offshore wind farms are still somewhat more important for EnBW in terms of green energy than solar energy and onshore wind turbines.

Sustainable energy revenue is growing at a phenomenal rate. In the first quarter of this year, sales of 821 million euros were almost 120% higher than a year earlier. Net profit increased by 41% to 292 million euros. All this on a total turnover for the first quarter of 13.7 billion euros and a net profit of 1.2 billion euros.

Plattegrond van het solar park.  Rechtsonder ligt Werneuchen.  Beeld EnBW
Plan of the solar park. Werneuchen is located at the bottom right. EnBW Image
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