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

Germany's energy supply is on the verge of an important turning point. Over the coming months and years, German utility giants plan to build massive offshore wind farms that are expected to produce huge amounts of green energy. The first such wind farm went online this week.

DDP / DOTI / Matthias Ibeler

It is wet, cold and somewhat unreal on this morning in Emden, a small city on the North Sea coast in northwestern Germany. Patches of fog are slowly beginning to dissipate, but the worst thing of all is that it's dead calm.

"Let's hope they're working at least," says project manager Wilfried Hube, with a worried look on his face. Then he tightens the belt on his life vest and climbs into the waiting helicopter. The chopper takes off and flies at low altitude toward the coast, passing the islands of Juist and Borkum before heading out over the North Sea.

That's where the destination of Hube's short flight lies: Alpha Ventus, Germany's first and thus far only offshore wind farm. At first, the forms look tiny as they appear on the horizon. But as the helicopter approaches the wind farm, the gigantic dimensions of the project become apparent.

Twelve wind turbines tower above the icy water, covering an area of roughly four square kilometers (1.5 square miles), or about the size of 500 soccer fields. At a height of 150 meters (492 feet), each turbine is as tall as the Cologne Cathedral and, at 1,000 tons, as heavy as 25 fully loaded semi-trailer trucks.

Feeding the Grid

As the helicopter slowly descends onto the nearby supply platform, the wind picks up and the rotors on all the wind turbines begin rotating slowly.

Hube seems relieved -- and not just because, as he says, an offshore wind farm without wind always creates a "bleak impression on visitors."

Almost unnoticed by the general public, the project manager, with the help of teams of divers, managed to connect the last underwater cables a few days ago. Since then, each turn of the rotors has sent massive amounts of electricity from the North Sea to the mainland.

Alpha Ventus will feed at least 220 gigawatt hours of energy into the grid each year, or enough to power 50,000 households.

The three operators of the wind farm, electric utilities E.on, Vattenfall and EWE, started normal operations this week. On Tuesday, the farm was officially inaugurated with a ceremony on the supply platform. The CEOs of the three large energy companies flew in for the event, as did German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen.

New Era

The completion of Alpha Ventus isn't just a milestone for the three operators. The commissioning of the farm also rings in a completely new era in energy production.

In the coming months and years, more giant offshore wind farms will begin popping up along German and European coasts, feeding enormous amounts of electricity into the grids on the mainland.

Large corporations like Siemens and General Electric, and European energy providers like E.on, RWE, Vattenfall and the Spanish company Iberdrola, are currently staking out their claims in waters that have been approved for wind-farm use. Hardly a month goes by without new investments worth billions being made.

There is a gold-rush mentality in the air. "In the industry, the offshore wind market is seen as the key growth area in renewable energy in our regions," says Frank Mastiaux, CEO of Climate & Renewables at E.on. Politicians are also full of hope.

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