North Coast Doldrums Why Germany's Offshore Wind Parks Have Stalled

With Chancellor Merkel's government turning its back on nuclear power, offshore wind parks are set to pick up the slack. But the installation of gigantic turbines in the North and Baltic seas has proven challenging, slow and hindered by bureaucratic hurdles. Could the future of wind be on land after all?

REpower Systems/OBS

By and

Whenever German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits one of her country's four major electric utilities, it is bound to have symbolic significance. This was the case when the chancellor and Jürgen Grossmann, the CEO of electric utility RWE, visited the Emsland nuclear power plant near Lingen in northern Germany last year. Merkel's message was clear: German nuclear power plants are safe. And they will be needed for years to come to ensure that the country's energy supply remains affordable and stable.

But after the catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, Berlin's energy policy changed dramatically. And an event Chancellor Merkel is scheduled to attend on May 2, together with officials from the electric utility EnBW, comes at a convenient moment. On that day, the chancellor will not be touring a nuclear power plant. Instead, she will be headed out to sea or, more precisely, to a point in the Baltic Sea 16 kilometers (10 miles) off the Zingst Peninsula in Western Pomerania.

Energy giant EnBW has almost completed the first commercial offshore wind farm in the Baltic Sea at the site, and Merkel will inaugurate it.

Twenty-one giant wind turbines -- each 130 meters (425 feet) tall -- will jut out of the water over an area of seven square kilometers (2.7 square miles). When the wind is strong, they will feed about 185 gigawatt hours of electricity into the grid each year, or enough to supply 50,000 households with green energy.

A Central Role

The EnBW wind farm is only the beginning, assuming the German government is more faithful to its new energy concept than it was to the old one. It has been six weeks since the reactor accident in Japan, and the first cornerstones of the new policy are already clear. Merkel's administration, though, has yet to decide how many nuclear power plants must be replaced in the near future, and how much longer the remaining plants will remain in operation.

It is clear, however, that wind energy will assume the central role in the energy about-face envisioned by Merkel and Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, both of the center-right Christian Democrats. They laid out ambitious goals at a meeting with German state governors two weeks ago. And to meet those goals, the government plans billions in subsidies and loans.

The plan foresees that by 2030, offshore windparks will have a combined capacity of 25 gigawatts -- equivalent to 20 nuclear power plants. To get there, energy providers will have to install several offshore wind farms each year. Although they have repeatedly pledged to make the necessary investments, implementation has been sluggish. Projects like "Baltic 1" and the "Alpha Ventus" research project completed last year by utilities E.on, Vattenfall and EWE seem more like alibis than the real thing.

When building wind farms in the North Sea and Baltic Sea, the operators must overcome substantial obstacles. To protect coastlines and tidal flats, German authorities have required that wind turbines be located up to 40 kilometers from the coast. While neighboring countries like Denmark need just a few months to build wind farms in shallow waters within view of the mainland, German engineers must cope with water depths of up to 50 meters (164 feet).

Like Walking on the Moon

Specially designed ships are needed to anchor the foundations and build the towers. The effort is comparable in scope with the first expedition to the moon, says Fritz Vahrenholt, head of RWE's renewable energy division.

Furthermore, operators face tough resistance from environmentalists. Currently, the harbor porpoise is of great concern. The loud noises produced when the foundations are rammed into the bedrock could harm the animals' hearing and sonar systems, fears Beate Jessel, the head of Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

Great Britain has solved this problem by merely chasing away the marine mammals during the construction phase using sonar buoys which produce a sound unpleasant to the animals. Germans, however, have shown little appetite for such a pragmatic approach.

Instead, government agencies are calling for construction to be suspended between May and August. A farcical policy say Germany's utilities: It is virtually impossible to work on the wind turbines during the stormy winter months.

In addition, the grid connections and high-tension power lines are still in short supply along the country's coastline, making it impossible to transport the electricity to Germany's economically powerful south. Such realities have not exactly proven a magnet to investors.

Losing Hope

Despite billions in subsidies, concludes a study by the management consulting firm KPMG, returns are higher in neighboring European countries. As a result, while E.on and RWE are among the world leaders in offshore wind park construction, they have been holding back in Germany, a country which is fond of touting its pioneering role in alternative energies.

The industry is gradually losing hope that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. And some have begun betting on a new strategy, which is in fact the old strategy: building turbines on land again. "Onshore is much easier, much cheaper and much faster," says Andreas Nauen, managing director of the Hamburg-based turbine manufacturer Repower.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy Systems Technology in the central German city of Kassel have studied the options on land. They believe it is realistic for Germany to make 2 percent of its land area available for wind power, which would make it possible to operate about 63,000 turbines, or almost three times as many as today. According to the Fraunhofer study, southern Germany is particularly promising and holds enormous potential.

Indeed, southern Germany has neglected wind energy until now. In Bavaria, it constitutes no more than 1 percent of total power generation. And the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg is in last place among Germany's large states, with 470 megawatts of installed wind capacity. By comparison, the northern state of Lower Saxony has 6,660 megawatts.

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