Het solarpark Weesow-Willmersdorf heeft een vaste groep bewakers. Foto Maurits Kuypers
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In Germany this summer, regional public transport can be ridden for 9 euros a month. Innovation Origins is taking this opportunity to visit a number of future projects. In this edition, we travel to Germany’s largest solar park in the state of Brandenburg.

There are plenty of regional trains from Berlin to the countryside of Brandenburg. One of the shortest lines is the RB25 service to Werneuchen. The minibus starts off in Berlin Ostkreuz and then winds it way via the districts of Lichtenberg and Marzahn right through East Berlin until near Ahrendsfelde station where the houses give way to fields and forests.

From there, the train continues its journey along a single track and after approximately three quarters of an hour, we reach our destination and everyone gets off. Most of the passengers are commuters who have left the city because, for instance, it became too expensive, too stressful or simply because they enjoy peace and quiet.

Werneuchen also enjoys some renown for a small airport where pilots can obtain their pilot’s license, but one thing makes Werneuchen truly unique. Just a few kilometers away by bike is Germany’s largest solar park: the EnBW Solarpark Weesow-Willmersdorf solar park.

Het zonnepark Weesow-Willmersdorf vanuit de lucht. Foto EnBW
The Weesow-Willmersdorf solar park from the air. Photo EnBW

465,000 solar modules

The road from the station that leads 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. There are 465,000 of them, to be precise, with a capacity of 187 Megawatt peak (MW). For comparison, the largest park in the Netherlands (in Groningen) counts 300,000 solar panels with a capacity of 120 MW.

The site is absolutely gigantic: 164 acres (almost 250 soccer fields) plus another 45 acres where EnBW is intent on giving the whole area a natural look, with fruit trees, shrubs, oaks, rowan trees and maples.

Inside the fence, a flock of sheep make sure that the grass is kept nice and short. Everyone can admire this up close, as the park is crisscrossed by bike and hiking paths. Visitors can also climb a small artificial knoll to get a good view over everything. EnBW spokesperson Ramona Sallein expects that a lot of people will take advantage of this.

Pilot project

The park is in many ways a pilot project, she says via video link. One of the park’s main unique factors is that no subsidies are pouring in. These would normally be the so-called EEG subsidies, which stands for the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz. This is a German law that guarantees a fixed price for the green electricity that is generated.

However, these EEG subsidies only apply to parks up to 20 MW. Above that, energy providers have to bear the costs themselves. Economies of scale are instrumental in this regard. Sometimes, according to Sallein, an interim solution is chosen by splitting a project into at least two parts, a 20 MW part and the rest without subsidies. But in the case of Weesow-Willmersdorf, subsidies were waived altogether. EnbW did enter into a long-term contract with Covestro at an early stage for the purchase of one-third of the electricity generated by the solar park.

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

100 million euros

Another innovation involves financing. EnBW has invested a hunderd million euros in the project. Co-financiers are often sought beforehand for these large sums. This was not done for this park due to the experimental nature of the project.

In March of this year, the park had been connected to the electricity 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 challenging from a technical point of view. It was also crucial to get the local residents on board as much as possible. For example, EnBW plans to organize visitor 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, as well as other mammals, birds and insects.

Sallein says that some openings have been made in the ten kilometer security fence around the park, large enough for small animals, but too small for wolves. “Because there are increasing numbers of those in Brandenburg. Protecting the sheep, that was a precondition.”

Natura 2000

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

Surrounding the solar park, a lot of wind turbines can also be seen, but these have nothing to do with the solar park, Sallein points out. “We would like to build projects in the future that combine solar and wind energy. That undoubtedly brings additional cost advantages. But to put it into practice is problematic because of the different licensing procedures. For example, the average time to build a wind park takes 7 years, while for solar panels it is two to three years. That tends to make combi-projects almost impossible.”

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

God’s gift

The Weesow-Willmersdorf park is capable of generating enough power for 50,000 households. Which, according to Sallein, would be many times more if the other parks in the area were also taken into account. In fact, EnBW commissioned two more megaprojects of this kind in eastern Brandenburg this year, both good for 150 MW. One of the parks is near the village with the wonderful name Gottesgabe (God’s gift), the other one is near Alttrebin.

Together, the three parks account for almost 500 MW. All of Brandenburg had a total installed capacity of 4,000 MW at the end of last year. EnBW’s overall figure for all of Germany is around 800 MW, whereby in addition to Brandenburg, Bavaria also has a relatively large amount of solar power.

But that still needs to be increased by a great deal more. EnBW, like other German energy producers, wants to accelerate the energy transition and solar parks are a relatively easy way to do that. The goal is for half of all electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2025. EnBW is now sitting just above the fourty percent mark. A sum of four billion euros is available for this purpose over the 2021-2025 period.

Farmers know which land is most suitable

One advantage of Eastern Brandenburg, in Sallein’s view, is that it has a relatively large number of sandy soils that are not so fertile. “That’s why cooperation with farmers is important. They know better than anyone else which arable land is less fertile and can consequently be better utilized for solar parks.”

But arable land alone will not get Germany where it needs to be, energy experts are well aware. In order to achieve the government’s targets, everything has to happen at the same time. There must be more solar parks, more solar panels on roofs, more off- and onshore wind power, and a stronger and more efficient electricity grid.

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

The government in Berlin has set itself the goal of increasing the proportion of green electricity to eighty percent by 2030. According to Stamatelopoulos, in order to achieve that, at least 10,000 MW of solar panels must be added each year. Whether that’s on the ground or on rooftops does not matter. Germany is now running at a pace of about an additional 5,000 MW per year. So there is still a lot of work to be done. Sallein: ” This is 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 its headquarters in Karlsruhe. The company has been in a state of transition since 2012. This has a lot to do with the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany. The goal was to increase the proportion of renewable energy in their portfolio from 12 percent to 40 percent by 2020. Offshore wind parks are still just a bit more important for EnBW in terms of green energy than solar power and onshore wind turbines.

Turnover for sustainable energy is rising at a phenomenal pace. In the first quarter of this year, sales of 821 million euros were almost 120 percent above the level of one year earlier. Net profit rose by 41 percent 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 solarpark. Rechtsonder ligt Werneuchen. Beeld EnBW
Map of the solar park. Werneuchen is located on the lower right. Image EnBW