Stress on the High Seas Germany's Wind Power Revolution in the Doldrums

The construction of offshore wind parks in the North Sea has hit a snag with a vital link to the onshore power grid hopelessly behind schedule. The delays have some reconsidering the ability of wind power to propel Germany into the post-nuclear era.


By and

The generation of electricity from wind is usually a completely odorless affair. After all, the avoidance of emissions is one of the unique charms of this particular energy source.

But when work is completed on the Nordsee Ost wind farm, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, the sea air will be filled with a strong smell of fumes: diesel fumes.

The reason is as simple as it is surprising. The wind farm operator, German utility RWE, has to keep the sensitive equipment -- the drives, hubs and rotor blades -- in constant motion, and for now that requires diesel-powered generators. Because although the wind farm will soon be ready to generate electricity, it won't be able to start doing so because of a lack of infrastructure to transport the electricity to the mainland and feed it into the grid. The necessary connections and cabling won't be ready on time and the delay could last up to a year.

In other words, before Germany can launch itself into the renewable energy era Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen so frequently hails, the country must first burn massive amounts of fossil fuels out in the middle of the North Sea -- a paradox as the country embarks on its energy revolution.

One of the central projects of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition government, the scrapping of atomic energy and the switch to renewable energy, has hit a major obstacle. Nine months after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, Berlin's multi-billion-euro project is facing increasing difficulties. And the expansion of the country's offshore wind farms in particular, which Minister Röttgen considers of paramount importance, is constantly beset by new problems.

Extremely Difficult Position

On December 6 he received an urgent message from Leonhard Birnbaum, RWE's chief commercial officer, and Fritz Vahrenholt, who heads up the company's renewables division. The two men expressed their serious concern that "the timely realization of grid links" for offshore wind farms had become "dramatically problematic," thus seriously jeopardizing the expansion of the sector and therefore also the government's plans. "This development puts us in an extremely difficult position," the two RWE managers wrote.

The energy industry is currently under more stress than almost any other sector of the German economy. The country's utilities are being forced to completely change their focus: away from nuclear power; away from their centralized structure; and away from their accustomed business models. The quartet of E.on, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, which for so long have been spoilt by enormous profits, has had to implement tough cost-cutting measures, and countless jobs have been sacrificed. E.on alone is shedding up to 11,000 of its workers, and the industry as a whole could ax more than 20,000 jobs in all.

At the same time, the sector is forging aggressively into the business of regenerative sources of energy -- or at least that was the plan. Now it's becoming increasingly clear that the promised expansion will not progress as hoped due to a lack of the necessary conditions for its success.

Only this spring the German government set extremely ambitious targets. Electricity generated from wind, which blows much more consistently on the sea than on land, was to become the main source of Germany's new environmentally friendly power, backed by billions of euros in federal subsidies. So far 86 applications have been submitted for North Sea wind farms, though just 24 have been approved -- and only four are in operation.

According to the government's plans, capacities are to be increased to 7,600 megawatts by 2020 -- equivalent to the combined output of six or seven nuclear power plants. By 2030, the output is to be as much as 26,000 megawatts. However RWE's managers warn that even the more modest target for 2020 could be "missed by miles."

Within 30 Months

Their skepticism is based on sobering experiences with the HelWin wind farm north of the island of Helgoland. When RWE first applied for approval for its North Sea project two years ago, there was no evidence it would encounter any difficulties. The utility planned to invest about €1 billion to install systems that could generate output of 300 megawatts.

E.on and Blackstone also began hatching plans to set up wind parks in the allotted zone. The only proviso was that they would be connected to the existing power grid on the mainland within a reasonable period of time. The Federal Network Agency, the body responsible, assured them this would happen. A decree was issued demanding that a connection to the grid must be available within 30 months of the submission of an application.

Network operator Tennet, the Dutch company that had bought E.on's grid two years earlier, gave the green light for the project. In exchange for laying undersea cabling and building transformer stations, the Federal Network Agency promised to repay Tennet in the form of so-called "grid fees." By the summer of 2012 at the latest, it was promised, environmentally friendly electricity would begin flowing to the mainland through a massive submarine cable from the waters off Helgoland.

On the strength of that promise, RWE, E.on and Blackstone began making plans. RWE had ships purpose-built to help anchor the 100-meter (350 foot) high turbines to the seabed. The captains and crews of these ships were trained for their mission in special camps. The company even leased an area in the port of Helgoland itself so that it could transport the immensely heavy gondolas and rotors to their designated deep-sea destinations no matter what the weather conditions.

"Everything seemed to be going perfectly," RWE CEO Vahrenholt recalls. Until, that is, Tennet recently informed the utility about a change of plans. In a letter dated November 22, Tennet stated that inadequate funding and difficulties procuring the necessary equipment meant the envisaged timetable was no longer realistic. Completion would therefore be delayed by up to a year.

'A Technical Novelty'

Tennet underestimated the challenges presented by the maritime venture, and the work at depths of up to 30 meters (100 feet) under water proved extremely laborious. "It's all a technical novelty," says Lex Hartman, the head of Tennet's German operations. Because of the weather conditions, engineers could only carry out much of the work between May and September, not least because the transportation of the necessary equipment couldn't be guaranteed outside this timeframe.

Then there was the expensive task of laying the cable itself. Some 85 kilometers (53 miles) of cables are required to connect the wind farms to the coast alone. Another 45 kilometers (28 miles) of lines are then needed to carry the power from the coast to the transformer station in Büttel near Hamburg, from where the electricity is to be transported to the relatively wind-poor southern areas of Germany along high-tension lines.

The business of offshore power generation -- with all its associated inherent imponderables -- is also uncharted territory for Tennet's suppliers like Siemens. The Munich-based electronics giant is building and installing four platform-based converter stations for Tennet, but the approval process has proved extremely complex and thus time-consuming. The HelWin1 and BorWin2 platforms were due to be installed as early as 2012 and be in operation a year later. Later, though, it became clear that only one of the two platforms could be installed on time.

The delays have far-reaching consequences for both the operators of the wind farms and the offshore sector in general. Without a grid to plug into, the turbines can't deliver any electricity to the mainland. And without the sale of "green" power, the multibillion-euro wind farms won't be generating revenues any time soon.

Renewed Doubts

According to internal estimates, RWE alone could lose more than a hundred million euros. Delaying construction is no longer possible. The timing of shipping transports, supplies of materials and the use of specialized construction teams is simply too intricate to easily reorganize.

One particularly devastating consequence is that private investors, who only recently overcame their wariness about the technologically challenging business of offshore power generation, now have doubts once more.

Tennet says it has secured the €6 billion it needs to invest in its current projects. However the network operator is having a harder time finding investors for the plethora of plans it has for the future. Even the Dutch government is now starting to look into the possible fallout.

Following the setback in the North Sea, the utilities are themselves again discussing the merits of offshore power generation. E.on CEO Johannes Teyssen had planned to earmark several billion euros for the construction of three new wind farms weeks ago. But the bad news from Tennet and Siemens has sowed the seed of uncertainty in his mind too. Time and again, the projects have been tested for possible weaknesses, and their funding tweaked accordingly. Teyssen finally released the money just before Christmas, but his planners estimate that the projects' start dates will be pushed back by 12 to 18 months.

The delays on the high seas are a bitter blow for the German government's sensational about-face on electricity generation. Should the expansion of the offshore wind farms be delayed further still, this could lead to not only higher prices but also bottlenecks in energy supplies.

Pressing for Damages

The utilities could presumably only alleviate such a possible shortage of electricity by importing nuclear-generated power from the Czech Republic or France. "Political blunders are carelessly threatening the hard-won faith in offshore technology," says RWE's clearly annoyed manager Vahrenholt. After all, it's the job of Germany's ministers and civil servants to guarantee the timely connection of the wind farms with the national grid.

Unfortunately both the politicians and the Federal Network Agency are ducking their responsibility. In their letter of December 6, the wind farms operators suggested offsetting the financial losses they would suffer by increasing or extending the feed-in payments for the offshore wind farms under the Federal Renewable Energy Act. They also demanded the introduction of legally binding connection deadlines for wind farms to allay investors' fears as quickly as possible.

The German government has yet to respond to the pleas. However there's little enthusiasm at the environment ministry for reopening the tough negotiations that preceded the passing of the Renewable Energy Act in the first place.

RWE's bosses say they won't be satisfied with that. If the government sticks by its hard line, the company vows to press for damages in the triple-digit millions.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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feltmesteren 12/30/2011
1. Meaningless electricity production, or?
Despite all the talks on energy closes look on our habitual way of consuming energy a still faraway. Please take a look at this setup - a modern huge container vessel and the Danish wind power industry. Only one of these ships could have an installed effect of 109 MW (146.171 hp.) and the total year around effect from Denmark’s more than 6000 wind power plants are approximately 791 MW. That is to say that 6 to 8 vessels of this kind consume energy equal to the entire energy generated by the wind power industry in Denmark. A lot of environmental issues seem to remain unsolved, e.g. the seabed polluted by EMF-smog from the cabling etc. Link,
subgeometer 01/02/2012
It's odd that (or if) cost and time overruns were not anticipated in planning novel and unfamiliar infrastructure. In the big picture however a few hundred million euros and a year is only a moderate setback. Nuclear power stations go billions over budget, take extra decades to build in some cases, and are inherently dangerously unstable. And setbacks encountered here, and lessons learned can only benefit this project and it expands in scope, and other similar infrastructure elsewhere. This article seems to emanate from elements in the energy corporations and/or ministry (I'm no expert on German domestic politics) who are wedded to the past and have no desire to see renewable energy projects succeed. All involved should roll their sleeves, study the mistakes, and develop the competencies required to effectively implement renewable generation
Atomikrabbit 01/22/2012
3. the Germans
The Germans are an interesting people. They have traded the one-in-a-million chance of a nuclear disaster for the certainty of an economic one.
Peter Dow 02/26/2012
4. Scottish Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Reservoir and Dam
There is a good solution to complement wind power - hydro-electric pumped-storage dams. Perhaps we in Scotland can store Europes excess wind energy when you have some and then sell it back to you when your wind is calm? I need an investment of abour £20-billion or 24-billion-Euros to build one such pumped hydroelectric dam in Scotland. I would have started a new topic but I am not allowed to in this forum so I am posting a reply here. Scotland best for pumped-storage hydroelectricity energy economy This is a statement of the obvious as far as Scottish electrical power-generation engineers and scientists are concerned I expect but I am making this statement anyway, not for the benefit of our scientists or engineers but to inform the political debate about the potential of the Scottish economy "after the North Sea oil runs out" because political debate involves mostly non-scientists and non-engineers who need to have such things explained to them. The Scottish economy has a profitable living to make in future in the business of electrical energy import/export from/to English electrical power suppliers and perhaps even to countries further away one day. The tried and tested engineering technology we Scots can use in future to make money is pumped-storage hydroelectricity. [img][/img] In Scotland, the *Cruachan Dam pumped-storage hydroelectric power station* ( was first operational in 1966 and was built there to take advantage of Scotland's appropriate geography and available capital. So Scotland has the appropriate geography for pumped-storage hydroelectric power and we have the capital particularly if we invest some of the taxes on North Sea oil before it all runs out and it is all spent. Investment in wind-power energy generation is proceeding apace, in Scotland, in England, on and offshore, and that's very "green" and quite clever, though wind power is not as dependable as tidal power, but unless and until sufficient capacity to store energy becomes available to supply needs when the wind isn't blowing then conventional, and perhaps increasingly expensive, coal, gas or oil burning or nuclear energy power will still be needed to keep the lights on when the wind doesn't blow. *Scottish opportunity* Here is the opportunity for the Scottish economy in a future where wind-power generation is increasingly rampant: *if we Scots build a large capacity of new pumped-storage hydroelectric power stations, not only can we supply all our own Scottish energy needs from "green" renewable energy schemes, but we could provide energy storage capacity for customers outside Scotland, particularly in England*, who live in a land not so well endowed with appropriate geography for hydroelectric power. In future, a Scotland with investment in a massive pumped-storage hydroelectric capacity could buy cheap English wind-power while the wind is blowing then sell the same energy back to English power suppliers, *at a profit*, when the wind isn't blowing and the English will pay more for energy. So everyone wins, the energy is all green, the electricity supply is always available when it is needed and *that* is how the Scottish energy economy does very well after the North Sea oil runs out. So problem solved but not job done as yet. We Scots do actually need to get busy investing and building pumped-storage hydroelectric power generation and supply capacity in Scotland now.
Peter Dow 02/26/2012
5. My vision for a LARGER hydro dam at Coire Glas, Scotland than SSE propose
*My vision for a LARGER hydro dam at Coire Glas, Scotland than SSE propose* I am presenting here my vision for a large pumped storage hydroelectric 2-square kilometres surface-area reservoir and 300+ metre tall dam which I have designed for the Coire Glas site, Scotland. (*View site using Google Earth where the convenient label is "Loch a' Choire Ghlais" (* - or, I was inspired to conceive and to publish my vision by learning of *the Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) proposal to build a smaller hydroelectric pumped-storage scheme at Coire Glas (* which has been presented to the Scottish government for public consultation. I have not long been aware of the SSE plan for the Coire Glas scheme, not being a follower of such matters routinely, but I was prompted by an earlier tangentially-related news story (about energy storage technology for renewable energy generators such as wind farms) to write to Members of the Scottish Parliament on the merits and urgency of new pumped storage hydroelectric power for Scotland on 14th February and a reply from Ian Anderson, the parliamentary manager for Dave Thomson MSP received the next day, the 15th February informed me about the SSE plan and Ian added "initially scoped at 600MW but, to quote SSE, could be bigger!" I replied to Ian "So the schemes proposed by the SSE are welcome and ought to be green-lighted and fast-tracked, but I am really proposing that Scots start thinking long term about an order of magnitude and more greater investment in pumped storage hydroelectric capacity than those SSE plans." So I had in mind "bigger would be better" but it was not until the next day on the 16th February when *a news story informed me that the SSE plans had been submitted to the Scottish government for public consultation (* that I thought "this needs consideration now". So starting late on the night of the 17th, early 18th February and all through the weekend, I got busy, outlining my alternative vision for a far bigger dam and reservoir at the same location. So this is my vision as inspired by the SSE plan. If my vision is flawed then the fault is mine alone. If my vision is brilliant, then the brilliance too is mine. :D [img][/img] [img][/img] ( Image also hosted on postimage ( The black contour line at 550 metres elevation shows the outline of the SSE proposed reservoir of about 1 square kilometre surface-area and the grey thick line shows the position of the proposed SSE dam which would stand 92 metres tall and would be the tallest dam in Scotland and indeed Britain to date though it seems our dams are several times smaller than the tallest dams elsewhere in the world these days. Part of the red contour line at 775 metres elevation, where the red line surrounds a blue shaded area, blue representing water, shows the outline of my larger reservoir of about 2 square kilometres surface-area and the thicker brown line shows the position of my proposed dam which would stand 317 metres tall which would be one of the tallest man-made dams in the world. *Enhanced satellite photograph* [img][/img] [img][/img] ( Image also hosted on PostImage.Org (
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