Fifteen years ago, residents of the province of Burgenland would have laughed if you told them their region would one day be exporting energy.
But since the late nineties, the easternmost area of Austria has rapidly scaled up its wind power capacity from zero to 481MW today, so that by the end of this year it expects to become an Energieautarkie, the German term for an energy independent country, company, or even person.
With a population of less than 300,000 people Burgenland’s power company, Energie Burgenland (EB), and private landowners have been able to install 286 turbines stretching as far as the eye can see. The fleet of large scale wind farms includes Europe’s largest wind energy development in Andau and two giant 7.5MW Enercon turbines in Potzneusiedl.
Now the region is touting itself as a poster boy for the low carbon economy, offering real life evidence that backing renewables is key to delivering economic growth – a theme that has unsurprisingly been prevalent at the annual European Wind Energy Association conference in Vienna this week.
Michael Gerbavsits, chief executive of EB, says the utility has invested €300m so far in wind energy, plus another €85m in a transformer to ensure the power can be carried easily around the region and beyond.
Over the next few years, EB will invest another €450m in renewable energy, ramping up wind capacity to reach 1GW by the end of 2014 and enabling Burgenland to export power and cut CO2 emissions by the equivalent of taking 615,000 cars of the roads.
The feat will be a significant step towards fulfilling Austria’s ambition of becoming Energieautarkie by 2050. Fuelled by a ban on nuclear that has been in place since the late 1970s, renewables already contributes 65 per cent to Austria’s electricity mix and nearly 31 per cent of the total energy mix, most of which comes from hydropower, with about five per cent from wind.
The government is taking a bottom up approach to green energy, urging each local government to develop their own renewables plan with a view to gradually weaning itself off fossil fuels and nuclear power imports over the coming years.
Werner Friedl, Mayor of the town of Zundorf, believes 1,000 green jobs will be created in the region on the back of the wind power boom, making a dent in Austria’s six per cent youth unemployment levels.
In fact, the region’s commitment to wind energy, as well as its €9m investment to tackle youth unemployment is starting to pay off.
Germany’s Enercon has recently opened a €40m production plant in Zundorf, making concrete turbine towers for its “cash cow” E101- 3MW machines.
The factory already employs 120 people, and is ramping up operations in the early part of this year. It also has a nearby training facility for wind power apprentices and says it has made an effort to recruit local people into jobs, with most employees having to travel no more than 25 kilometers to reach the plant.
As well as tapping into local markets, Enercon hopes to use its fourth factory to reach the emerging Eastern and Central European wind power markets. Concrete towers could be floated on a barge up the Danube to Germany, or downstream to Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, the company says.
Hans-Dieter Kettwig, Enercon’s managing director, has one message for countries where unemployment is currently at high levels – switch to renewables.
“For those trying to tackle youth unemployment, not only in Austria, you should look to Burgenland to see the benefits it can bring,” he says. “Wind creates value added and some countries in Southern Europe can be supported by introducing wind energy into the mix. If you have 60 per cent youth unemployment, you should switch to a more regenerative energy source.”
It is a message echoed across Europe. Speaking at the opening plenary of the EWEA conference this week, MEP Anna Podimata, vice president of the European Parliament, stressed the role of renewables as a solution to the Eurozone crisis and a means of tackling unemployment, which currently stands at 11 per cent across Europe.
“Renewables should and could play a key role in a sustainably grown and competitive European Union,” she told delegates. “Despite the prices, renewables remains one of the most dynamic sectors in all major indicators.”
The wind industry is keen for the EU to set a renewable energy target for 2030, that would provide manufacturers and developers with certainty about the future of their businesses beyond 2020.
Although some member states have so far refused to commit to a target, Podimata told delegates she saw no reason why a 45 cent target would not prove both “realistic and feasible”.
“After three years of crisis there’s a growing consensus among decision makers that we need more Europe, but there is also a growing number of EU citizens questioning what kind of Europe,” she said.
“If we want to regain people’s confidence, then the answer is a Europe of growth and jobs, with prosperity for its citizens… That means a Europe of real economic and fiscal convergence of social and environmental sustainability and I strongly believe renewables has a key role to play in fulfilling all of these policy targets.”
This article first appeared on BusinessGreen