Germany's Offshore Fiasco: North Sea Wind Offensive Plagued by Problems

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Part 2: Helgoland's Prominent Role

Photo Gallery: Germany's Troubled Offshore Wind Offensive Photos

The red cliffs of Helgoland tower above it all. Soon more than 200 turbines will be rotating near the island. The old pirates' nest is being transformed into a base camp for offshore pipe fitters.

It's ironic that this is happening on Helgoland, an island of lobster shacks and flower boxes made of exposed concrete, where the police ride bikes and the last murder was committed in 1719 -- with a pitchfork.

The so-called "butter ferries" used to bring up to 900,000 visitors a year to the island, nicknamed the "booze rock." Today, Helgoland still gets an average of 300,000 visitors a year. The average age of island residents is 59.

But Helgoland is about to get some fresh blood. The prediction is that about 150 people will constantly be needed on site for service and maintenance. New buildings and quay walls are already going up in the old South Harbor. "This project alone is costing €30 million," says Jörg Singer.

The mayor of the island, a tall man with gelled hair, lived in Florida for many years. He expects a "job miracle." "We'll be the world's first offshore maintenance island," he says. To tame his euphoria, he occasionally glances at the picture of a turbaned Indian guru above his desk.

Behind the next door down the hall, tourism director Klaus Furtmeier is dreaming of boat tours to the choppy waters surrounding the wind farms, a pastime he calls "propeller watching."

The first water bus for the mechanics is already docked at the pier. It's a speedboat that makes the trip to the wind farms in 40 minutes.

The craft has a rubber strip on its bow that allows it to dock directly to a wind turbine mast. From there, the men jump onto a platform and take an elevator about 80 meters up to the nacelle, which houses the turbine machinery itself. Some check lubricant levels and repair generators while others remove rust.

A control room in Cuxhaven monitors each nacelle electronically. In emergencies, rescue personnel can descend from a helicopter, hovering at dizzying heights, down to a "winch-down platform."

Some of the offshore wind farms will cover areas of 70 or more square kilometers, surrounded by choppy seas with high waves.

Overcoming Obstacles

RWE already has accommodations on Helgoland for its courageous and acrobatic maintenance and repair workers. The company had a complex of 30 apartment built for its offshore personnel. WindMW plans to house its workers at the upscale Atoll Ocean Resort. Every morning, cooks will make sandwiches for the offshore workers.

Unexploded ordnance is a problem on Helgoland. "Until 1951, the British used Helgoland as a training site for the Royal Air Force," Singer explains, pointing to a helicopter flying by outside and saying it holds "the man from the weapons-clearing service." Yet another British bomb was discovered during work in the island's South Harbor.

In addition to the post-war explosives on the island of Helgoland, Allied pilots, in an effort to save fuel, often dumped their unused payloads into the North Sea when returning from bombing missions over Nazi Germany.

As a result, Assheuer's maritime construction site, 23 kilometers from the Helgoland coast, is also contaminated. Early last week, sonar devices were still scanning the seafloor for old bombs, while divers used underwater moored balloons to recover explosives.

The harbor porpoise is also causing problems. To ensure that the mammals don't suffer hearing damage, the authorities recently imposed a noise ceiling of 160 decibels during the ramming process. They'll make sure that it doesn't get any louder than that on Saturday.

To offset the noise, Assheuer has to install a "bubble veil," a sort of curtain of air bubbles around the turbine sites. Then, according to the regulations, the porpoises are to be scared off with hooting noises, followed by vibrations and low-intensity hammering. Only then can the hammers be operated at full force.

All of this slows things down and costs money. In addition, seasickness prevents up to 30 percent of workers from working in rough weather.

The engineers are constantly entering uncharted territory in terms of the technical and logistical challenges. Fritz Vahrenholt, long the head of RWE's green energy division Innogy, likened the project to the "first flight to the moon."

Nothing goes according to plan. For example, in July, RWE tried to load a 550-metric-ton jacket foundation from the wharf in Cuxhaven onto an installer vessel. During loading, the elevated ferry sank into the harbor mud because the cargo was too heavy. Now the transfer has to be completely reconfigured.

Transmission Headaches

Were politicians in Berlin too hasty when they embarked on the energy revolution? Is the dream world of windmills on water even affordable anymore?

The HVDC converter stations are causing the biggest problems. They consist of giant converter platforms directly adjacent to the wind farms, where they collect the alternating current generated by the turbines, convert it into high-voltage direct current and transmit it to land via long cables.

Since the British and the Danes build their wind farms much closer to the coast, they don't need any HVDC converter stations. The Germans, however, who don't want to spoil their views of the horizon with propellers, have to transmit their green energy through up to 200 kilometers of underwater cables. This has to be done with direct current to avoid a tremendous loss of current.

Tennet, the Danish grid operator, has ordered seven of these converter stations. But there have been many problems. "I got half of my gray hair because of the HVDC stations," says Assheuer. Offshore official Dahlke admits: "The situation is terrible."

Some of the fault lies with two companies, ABB and Siemens, which initially jumped at the chance to manufacture the HVDC stations. But now they don't know what to do next, especially with technology that has hardly been tested.

The dimensions of the converter stations are also causing headaches. ABB's first HVDC station, the "Borwin alpha," is a giant yellow box, with dimensions of 52 x 35 x 22 meters. It was hauled out to sea on a crane ship and is now positioned some 80 meters, at its highest point, above the waves.

The goliath was supposed to be working by now, taking up energy from the "Bard 1" turbine field. But because of construction delays at the troubled wind farm, there is not electricity available to test the Borwin alpha. In fact, no one knows whether it actually works.

The operators of Bard 1 -- three years behind schedule, facing problems at every turn and keeping the project surrounded by a veil of secrecy -- are keeping their distance from the press.

Siemens, which is now having its first HVDC station ("Helwin 1") built on a wharf in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, has also cloaked itself in secrecy. Even senior offshore managers are not permitted to photograph anything at the site, and cell phones are banned. The company has already had to pay €500 million in additional costs and penalties because it is more than a year behind schedule.

To make matters worse, even the cables are presenting a problem. The enormous amounts of cable required have led to production bottlenecks.

It is clear that the first wind farms will likely be complete by the end of 2013, but they still won't be transmitting any electricity to the mainland because the necessary outlets will be missing.

Delays and Risks

A battle has been raging over who should pay for the slowdowns. Tennet made an "unconditional grid connection commitment," says Assheuer.

But the company, which is owned by the Dutch government, cannot meet its obligations. According to a letter from the German government, it will cost an additional €15 billion to connect all offshore turbines in the first construction stage to the grid by 2020.

In light of these panic reports, the entire energy revolution has come to a standstill. Many next-generation wind farms have been put on hold for now. The industry is taking a wait-and-see approach, looking on to observe how the pioneers fare.

It is already clear that everything will become more expensive. The offshore operators are already paid up to 19 cents per kilowatt hour in compensation for electricity fed into the grid. It's estimated that the average household will pay an additional €50 next year for electricity because of the many green-energy subsidies.

The full effect of the calamities on the high seas will only become apparent after that -- and driving prices up even further.

Strict laws are to blame. Dahlke's agency, for example, requires an "environmental compatibility test" for each operator. But biologists are only slowing beginning to realize how harmful the wind turbines are to wildlife.

The turbines pose an enormous threat to blackbirds, thrushes and robins. New data show that the migratory birds orient themselves toward illuminated points in bad weather. As a result, large numbers of birds can end up flying into the flashing rotors.

RWE is now realizing how hastily the plans were forged. The company had originally planned to build a second wind farm ("Kaskasi") off Helgoland, and it had already obtained all the necessary permits. It has since emerged that the proposed site is in an important habitat for loons -- meaning RWE can forget about the project.

Optimism in the Face of Challenges

Despite all these problems, everyone remains optimistic. But what else can they do? Germany has made a deal with the devil. "Everyone wants expansion," says Dahlke, "and it will happen."

The mayor of Helgoland agrees. Singer looks tanned as he stands at the sea mole and gazes out onto the horizon. He can look forward to more income and more activity on his island.

"Our beautiful natural environment won't be disturbed," he says. "The windmills are more than 20 kilometers away, and they're almost invisible."

But the fact that the power plants are being built so far away is precisely why the projects are so plagued with problems. "Out there," says Singer, pointing at the choppy, gray water, "is where the fate of energy policy will be decided in the next two years."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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