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

By Matthias Schulz

Germany wants to pepper its northern seas with offshore wind turbines as part of its ambitious energy revolution. But strict laws, technology problems and multiple delays are turning the massive enterprise into an expensive fiasco. Investors and the public are losing patience.

Photo Gallery: Germany's Troubled Offshore Wind Offensive Photos

In his 1957 work "Book of Imaginary Beings," Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes Zaratan, an ocean turtle that was so large that she served as an artificial island. Forests grew on her shell.

The managers of the British offshore firm Seajacks have developed such an affinity for the monster that they named their latest creation after the mythical being. Their Zaratan looks like a giant barge. It has a huge crane and four hydraulic legs, each of them 85 meters (280 feet) long. The legs allow it to lift itself out of the water like an insect.

The vehicle is an "installation vessel," a tool of the offshore wind-power industry that does only one thing: It installs offshore wind turbines that that are sometimes taller than 150 meters.

On a recent Saturday, the ship was waiting at the wharf in the northern German port town of Cuxhaven to take four "monopiles," each weighing 750 metric tons (1.64 million pounds), on board. Monopiles are 70-meter steel masts that serve as foundations for the offshore wind turbines.

The vessel, operated by the firm WindMW, was set to drive the first of these monumental poles 40 meters into the seabed at a site 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the North Sea island of Helgoland, heralding the beginning of a sea change in German power generation.

The hammers on the installation vessel will generate noise at levels of 160 decibels. Zaratan will hammer 80 monopiles into the sand in the next few months. After that, the Zaratan and its sister ship, the Leviathan, will install the giant rotors on the turbines.

Since harbor porpoises are sensitive to noise while raising their young in the summer, all of this has to happen in the fall and winter, under overcast skies and in heavy seas.

It will also cost a lot of money: at least €1.2 billion ($1.5 billion).

Germany 's Wind-Power Offensive

Jens Assheuer, 37, heads the pioneering project. He is wearing a pink tie as he sits in a leather armchair in his office in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven, gazing out at the Weser River through a large, panoramic window. He hasn't slept much.

For weeks, the CEO of WindMW has been commuting back and forth between government offices in Berlin and his financial backers in Frankfurt. During teleconferences with his offshore planners in Denmark and England, he discusses things like the "Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Law" or the tiresome high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) transmission outlets.

Assheuer, an engineer by training, effortlessly rattles off this industry jargon. In general, he is a fast talker and likes to tear down the Autobahn at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) in his Audi A7. He is visibly tense. The entire financial world views with concern Germany's hastily announced energy revolution, which aims to boost renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption in Germany by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 while phasing out all of Germany's nuclear power reactors by 2022. Billions are at stake, and many aspects of the energy transition are in sorry shape.

By 2020, these modern pile dwellers plan to build an army of offshore wind turbines in the German Bight, the North Sea bay framed by parts of Germany and the Netherlands to the south and parts of Germany and Denmark to the east. Plans call for them to have a total energy output of 10,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 10 nuclear power plants. But this is only the beginning. But 2030, Germany expects to be producing 25,000 megawatts at its offshore wind farms.

These are audacious plans.

Progress Problems

The current maps are laid out on a table in the office of Christian Dahlke at the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH), in Hamburg. Dahlke, who heads the Management of the Sea division, handles maritime claims and issues construction permits. Within the industry, he has been dubbed the "prime minister of the North Sea."

"We've already received applications for 126 wind farms with a total of about 8,900 rotors," Dahlke explains. Some of the proposed wind farms are more than 150 kilometers off the coast, at depths of 50 meters. They have names like "Jules Verne," "Nautilus" and "Neptune." Together, they will create a sea full of electricity-generating beanpoles.

None of these wind farms has actually been built. The small "Alpha Ventus" test field exists north of the island of Borkum, and the "Baltic 1" wind farm has already been built in the Baltic Sea. But Baltic 1 is near the coast.

Only one offshore wind-turbine maker has dared to venture out into the turbulent North Sea, where what German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer calls the "raw material of the North" blows especially powerfully. Prompted by Russian magnate Arngolt Bekker, construction began in 2010 on "Bard 1," a gigantic wind farm that will consist of 80 five-megawatt turbines when complete.

Since then, hundreds of people have been desperately trying to save the project. It has already claimed one life, that of a diver who drowned. Some 40 workers sleep in bunks at the site on a "hotel platform." The project is already three years behind schedule, and it threatens to create €1 billion in losses.

But there is no cause for alarm, at least according to Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, who gave offshore operators a pep talk in Cuxhaven last week. The energy revolution, he says, is "irreversible."

But what happens when the failures and breakdowns begin to pile up? Who is ultimately responsible? Last week, the German cabinet approved a law that will provide favorable compensation provisions for offshore wind turbines that are losing money because of delays in connecting them to the power grid. But the issue is contentious within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition. Can consumers, who are paying for the subsidized renewable-energy revolution via their electricity bills, be burdened even further?

Kick-off of a Massive Building Phase

In the midst of this squabbling, the first major wave of construction is about to begin. Starting September 1, when the idle period imposed to protect harbor porpoises ends, the noise of pile-drivers will fill the air at many sites. Jack-up platforms like the Thor and the Odin will be operating in the swells, while lay barges will roll out underwater cable.

Six corporations will start construction in the coming days. German electric utilities RWE and E.on are also building large wind farms near the WindMW site. Trianal GmbH, an alliance of municipal utilities, is building a wind farm 45 kilometers north of Borkum, while the Swedish power company Vattenfall will be at work 70 kilometers from the North Sea resort island of Sylt.

Windreich AG has chartered the world's most powerful crane ship, the Innovation, whose crane can lift 1,500 metric tons. In the next few days, the ship will haul steel tripods out to sea, which will serve as the foundations for the "Global Tech I" wind farm more than 90 kilometers offshore.

The entire North Sea coast is gearing up to implement the various monumental projects. Wharfs with heavy-duty hoists and new offshore terminals are being built all along the coast, stretching from the port of Bremerhaven to that of Husum, just south of the Danish border. Behind them are plants where massive lattice frames and pipes are being welded together.

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