26.06.2023 | Interview with Katja Stommel on Volkswind's 30th anniversary
Volkswind Germany celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. A lot has happened in the wind business, both on the German market and throughout Europe. Katja Stommel, co-founder and now CEO and Head of the Wind division at Axpo, has been at Volkswind since its beginnings. In this interview she tells us about the milestones of the last three decades.
Volkswind has been around for 30 years. That's a long time. How did it all begin?
In the summer of 1992, I had just completed my bank apprenticeship and was in the 2nd semester of my mathematics studies. We moved to East Friesland. My future husband Matthias (Stommel) and our friend Martin (Daubner) were working for a wind power manufacturer in Aurich. An opportunity came about for us to realise our own first wind power plant. A local farmer was granted a permit for two wind turbines and wanted to realise them on his own. We seized the opportunity and suddenly became founders. It wasn't actually the plan that the three of us – a civil engineer, an electrical engineer and I from the business side would establish a company. We had a great deal of freedom back then. We had to adhere to a simple building code and a few other regulations. It was a totally new area. We were seen as ecological crackpots. We never dreamed that we would come this far and end up we are today. Actually, we just wanted to demonstrate an alternative to Chernobyl.
And what happened next?
The next few years were a balancing act between studies and career. Up until 1988, Volkswind was just a part-time job. I studied and the others worked full time. We built five wind power plants during that time. By 1997, we hired the first employees, people who had the same mindset as we did. My neighbour helped me with the bookkeeping and we hired a sales person in Engel.
Up until 2005, we didn't have a central office. We were already ahead of our time in terms of mobile working (laughs). Our employees were able to work flexibly in branch offices or at home. But, when we didn't even have room in the kitchen to cook lunch for our children we opened our first central office in Gaderkesee.
Would it be possible to repeat this story today?
No, not in the wind area, but in other sectors. If you're absolutely convinced about what you're doing you can achieve that. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant demonstrated that other solutions needed to be found.
What was fascination back then?
We wanted to actively change something. It wasn't about market share or making profits. We wanted to do this so that the situation would change and more renewable electricity would be used. We fought for that with passion. We had fun, we were highly motivated, and our hobby became our work.
What makes Volkswind stand out today?
We still enjoy the challenge. We try to adapt to the changing framework conditions and stay versatile. The wind industry is not a straight motorway, there are always left and right curves to take in order to reach the finish line. Finding the right way is a challenge. There aren't any traditional paths, you always have think in new ways.
Our degree of freedom is more restricted today due to regulations and permit processes, but there is still potential that we can take advantage of. We try to creatively question everything and keep an open mind. So, our work remains exciting even with under the current framework.
"In the past, all you needed to do was submit a few sheets of paper in a folder to get a permit. Today, it's several binders filled with documents."
In 2015, Volkswind was acquired by Axpo in Switzerland. What's changed as a result?
Not much. And that is the key to a successful take-over. We went about it pragmatically. The mutual understanding was there, lived and implemented. This worked in the past and continues to work well today.
How has Volkswind's business changed over the last three decades?
In principle it remains similar: We are still building wind power plants. Of course, we now build many more in many countries, but the basic idea hasn't changed. However, it has become significantly more complicated to reach the goal. In the past, all you needed to do was submit a few sheets of paper in a folder to get a permit. Today, it's several binders filled with documents.
Were there also difficult times?
The political framework conditions in Germany were often uncertain. For example, on two occasions we were receiving almost no feed-in tariff and, at the same time, had no access to the power markets. All our project financing hung in the balance.
The last ten years were difficult because German policy-makers did not want wind power. We weren't getting the permits and the market was artificially kept small. The dent that the changes in the industry tender process created was politically motivated. Unfortunately, we are still dependent on politics; the EU price cap last year was a slap in the face.
With the "Wind on Land" act and other amendments, the German government wants to significantly accelerate the expansion of wind energy. How do you interpret these efforts.
The set-up enables us to catch up on the time we lost over the past years. Practice will show whether the players are willing to implement these changes.
Are political changes enough to bring momentum to the German market and can the goal to have a power mix with 80 per-cent from renewable energies be reached? What changes are needed to truly achieve a turnaround?
Grid expansion is the most important. If the recently adopted legislative amendments are actively implemented we will have no more problems here. Almost all European countries are behind here. Often it isn't the permit that's the problem, grid expansion is the bottle neck.
Together with Volkswind, Axpo wants to massively increase the expansion of wind energy by the year 2030. How can we reach this goal?
We have significantly expanded our development team in Germany and our business in other countries in order to increase capacities quickly. Volkswind is active in Germany and France and together with Axpo in Finland and Romania. We are assessing other markets.
The company has grown strongly. What does the company structure look like, and how do you ensure that Volkswind remains an attractive employer?
As a manager you have to create a good spirit and make people laugh. You have to be able to make a joke, even in the most difficult times. A positive error culture is important to us: No scolding, but explaining and analysing. We live an open company culture, promote proactive thinking, and have work under a flat organisation. My door is always open, even if you sometimes have to take a ticket to get in (laughs).
What do partners appreciate when working together with Volkswind?
They appreciate our dependability. We don't promise castles in the air. We work efficiently and define the various steps beforehand. We are solution-oriented and, of course, willing to compromise.
Your conclusion: 30 years Volkswind. A reason to celebrate?
Yes, of course, driving the expansion of renewable energies for 30 years. A lot of companies in the wind industry have fallen by the wayside over the past years. We're still here and we're successful. We still have the spirit and passion of the early days.
Outlook. What do you wish for the next 30 years?
Personally, I'd like to be as fit as today in 30 years. I hope that we can get climate change under control as quickly as possible. If we don't achieve that, we will no longer have the life we have today. This will require a massive expansion of renewable energies. I also hope that we find innovations to reduce CO2 from the atmosphere. And all this tomorrow instead of in 30 years. Together with Axpo, Volkswind will do its part for the energy transition. But we can't do it alone.
More about Axpo's subsidiary Volkswind: www.volkswind.de