The Future of Renewables? Germany's First Offshore Wind Farm Goes Online

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Part 5: 'A Steep and Expensive Learning Curve'

Photo Gallery: Alpha Ventus Goes Online Photos
DDP / DOTI / Matthias Ibeler

At large companies, such as E.on, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, they also believe that the experience gained from the Alpha Ventus research wind farm will mark the conclusion of what Mastiaux calls a "steep and expensive learning curve." The CEOs promise that the roughly 25 wind farms that are already licensed will now be quickly built, one after another.

But the game involving the "really big boys" is still being played far away from Germany's coasts, says Martin Skiba, head of RWE's offshore division and the former chief developer with turbine manufacturer Repower.

Major corporations, including France's EDF, Spain's Iberdrola, Scottish and Southern Energy and General Electric, as well as German companies, such as Siemens, E.on and RWE, are currently staking out the future of Europe's energy supply off the coasts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and Britain.

RWE, working with partners, has built the first phase of a wind farm with 60 turbines off the coast of Belgium. E.on is active in Denmark and Britain. New projects, each one larger and more spectacular than the next, are cropping up almost monthly.

Bold Vision

Only a few weeks ago, the UK, for example, completed the bidding process for the world's largest offshore project to date. Nine wind farms, the dimensions of which are not yet known, are to be constructed off the country's coasts by 2020, providing roughly 32 gigawatts of power. The investment costs are estimated at more than €110 billion, even though it is still not clear whether all parts of the projects will in fact be implemented. In the first round, all of the sites were assigned to international bidding consortiums. German companies, including Siemens, E.on and RWE, were also in the running.

RWE and its partners plan to build the largest British wind farm, in the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. RWE executive Skiba estimates that the project will cost the Essen-based group and its partners about €12 billion. Vahrenholt, his boss, says that it will be a smart investment.

The companies jockeying for position in the North Sea have a bold vision. In a few years' time, the large offshore wind farms could be linked together with special cables. This, combined with pumped-storage hydroelectric plants in Scandinavia, would create a network of clean power plants of unimagined proportions. Because of the great distances involved, regional weather fluctuations could be offset more effectively than with individual wind farms. As a result, a substantial portion of Europe's energy needs could be met with offshore power.

"That time will come," says Vahrenholt, "but it'll take another 10 or 20 years." Only then will it really be possible to shut down a large number of conventional power plants.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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