Wind Not Weapons: An Ailing Shipyard Finds New Life with Renewable Energies

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The German wind energy sector is expanding, opening up fresh business opportunities -- even for unlikely candidates like warship makers. The Nordseewerke shipyard has rejiggered its business model and decided to go green.

Ole-Christian Bolze, assistant to the shipyard's technical director, looks ahead to a new era. Zoom
Jörg Müller / Agentur Focus

Ole-Christian Bolze, assistant to the shipyard's technical director, looks ahead to a new era.

Someday the last swords really will be beaten into plowshares, or perhaps it is the warships that will transform into wind turbines -- precisely what is taking place at the Nordseewerke shipyard in Emden on Germany's North Sea coast.

At the moment, a gray corvette -- a type of small warship -- sways at the side of the quay. Construction is nearly complete. Over in the dry dock, workers are giving a container ship called the Alexander B a final inspection. But these are their last tasks as shipbuilders. Schaaf Industrie AG (SIAG), a mid-sized company specializing in supplying parts for wind turbines and located in the Westerwald area, well inland of Emden, bought the 106-year-old shipyard this March. The company isn't interested in continuing with shipbuilding and certainly not with manufacturing armaments. Environmental technology offers far better opportunities.

It's the end of an era in Emden. "If it floats, we built it here," says Ole-Christian Bolze, 39, assistant to the shipyard's technical director. The Nordseewerke has built submarines, war ships, container ships, yachts and even the "Vasco da Gama," at the time the world's largest suction dredger.

Bolze himself is matter-of-fact. His acquaintance with the shipyard extends back to 1991, when he began his training here as an industrial administrator, but he doesn't appear to be mourning shipbuilding's demise. "We have to accept that Korea can build container ships just as well as we can these days, and they make them cheaper," he explains.

Shipyards' Gloom

Nearly all of Germany's shipyards are suffering from the same malaise. Last year, during the global financial crisis, the industry's orders shrank by almost 40 percent and the number of employees has dropped by around 20 percent since 2008. Many owners are looking to get rid of their companies.

Russian and Arab investors have expressed interest, promising new business opportunities, but for the most part that interest hasn't developed into anything more solid. For the Nordseewerke's more than 1,000 employees, previous owner ThyssenKrupp's decision to sell the shipyard to SIAG meant relief more than anything else, Bolze says. Besides, he points out, the old and new industries aren't really all that different -- "A platform at sea is basically a ship that stays put."

As he makes the rounds at the shipyard, Bolze pauses in front of Hall 117. An orange metal door, as high as the building itself, obstructs the view inside. "This is where the wind turbine towers will be built," he explains. "A flat sheet of metal comes in the front and the finished tower goes out the back."

Transferable Skillls?

First, the building will be extended by 260 meters (850 feet), to almost twice its current length. The concrete foundations for the extension have already been laid and construction of the first tower is scheduled to start in October.

Bolze is confident that his shipbuilders are suited for their new line of work. "Most people here are trained welders," he explains. "And if I've built a ship, then clearly I'm a very good welder."

The shipyard also employs carpenters, electricians, pipe fitters, metalworkers, mechanics and electro-mechanical engineers. It won't be necessary to fully retrain them, Bolze says, but simply to show them the ropes of their new jobs.

Bolze opens the door to another building that, until now, has housed the shipyard's turning shop. Martin Lerchenberger, 38, is dressed in a boiler suit and operating one of the machines. His employment contract hasn't changed, Lerchenberger says, and his wages are the same. Okay, he concedes, there won't be any more ship launching ceremonies to celebrate. But the workers will lose little aside from that. "We used to work for war," he says, "and now we work for the normal economy." It doesn't seem to him like a bad shift at all.

'An Enormous Market'

The Nordseewerke's new business manager, Frank Wübben, 38, also appears confident. Wübben left competitor Enercon to join SIAG this July and he knows the wind turbine business. Adding together all the plans in all the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, he says, there's construction in the works for more than 20,000 wind turbines on those two seas by 2015. So far, only 3,700 of the projects have been approved. "It's an enormous market," Wübben says, and one with few competitors. Germany has just 10 other companies manufacturing wind turbine towers and bases.

The new Nordseewerke have already signed a first basic contract to produce 180 towers by 2014, Wübben says, and the company will be able to construct 50 to 100 towers per year. If demand increases, he adds, it would be possible to increase that number to 300.

In other words, production capacity for the large number of planned offshore wind turbine sites has not been met, not by far. Not every shipyard can suddenly convert to manufacturing wind turbines, of course, but Wübben believes there's room in the business for a few more.

Wübben is also confident that the German government's decision to extend the life spans of the country's nuclear power plants won't compromise the Nordseewerke's business prospects. "The demand for wind turbines will probably slow a bit," he says, "but the nuclear deal won't mean a change for us."

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