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.
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.
A Turning Point in Energy Policy
With the advent of offshore wind farms, the vision of an energy supply that is easier on the environment and reduces dependency on coal, gas and oil finally seems within reach. The long-promised turning point in German energy policy is now a little bit closer, as green energy from the sea takes on a central role in the government's ambitious plans to tackle climate change.
In 2007, Germany made a commitment to the European Union to substantially reduce its CO2 emissions. Chancellor Angela Merkel promised that her country would play a "pioneering role" in European and global climate protection. The goals were no less ambitious.
By 2020, Germany intends to reduce its emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by 30 percent over the base year of 1990. In its bid to reach this goal, the German government is taking an unorthodox approach within the EU. While its European neighbors plan to reduce their CO2 emissions through a mixture of energy conservation programs, the expansion of renewable energy and nuclear power, which has low CO2 emissions, Germany is standing by its plans to phase out nuclear power, which were announced by the administration of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Although the current coalition government of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) wants to extend the operating lives of Germany's reactors, nuclear power is not expected to be more than a so-called bridge technology in the future.
If Germany hopes to achieve its climate-protection targets, it needs to adopt a two-pronged approach: energy conservation combined with a massive expansion of the renewable-energy sector. Indeed, the Environment Ministry has plans to increase renewables' share of total power production from about 16 percent today to more than 30 percent in 2020. Environment Minister Röttgen hopes that the number could even be significantly higher than 40 percent a decade after that.
According to a "lead scenario" that the German government has put together to illustrate how this would work in an ideal situation, solar power, despite billions in government spending and highly subsidized jobs, will make a relatively small contribution to German power production. And significant growth spurts are not expected in hydroelectric power and biogas facilities by 2020.
The country is pinning its greatest hopes on the further expansion of wind energy. "In the last few years, the industry has already experienced an upturn that was once seen as virtually impossible," Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association (BWE), says proudly.
About 21,000 wind turbines are currently installed in Germany, covering between 6 percent and 7 percent of the country's power requirements. On stormy days and when demand is low, the green energy they produce is even enough to power all German households for a few hours.
Neglecting the Infrastructure
All of this was made possible by the government's persistent efforts to promote growth. For instance, wind power was given something of a priority status in the electricity grid. In addition, the 2004 Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) provided the industry with billions in subsidies to operate its turbines. But now the system is slowly approaching its limits.
Despite its costly subsidy programs, the German government has neglected to upgrade the infrastructure to meet the new requirements. The country still lacks a so-called smart grid, which would make it easier to integrate renewables into the network, and, most of all, storage capacity to offset periods of low wind activity. The expansion options for wind turbines are also limited geographically. Good locations on land have become scarce. And the process of repowering, in which existing facilities are replaced with significantly larger and more powerful turbines, is only gradually getting underway. There is also growing resistance in many places to the new turbines, some of which are twice as tall as the ones they are expected to replace.
None of these problems exist far off Europe's coasts, where there are plenty of possible sites. Besides, the wind blows more powerfully and consistently across the open sea.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that politicians of every stripe have attached such great importance to the expansion of offshore wind projects in the past. In 2005, then-Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a member of the Green Party, predicted that offshore wind power would play a "central role" in Germany's power supply.
His successor Sigmar Gabriel, who belongs to the center-left Social Democrats, also anticipated that massive wattage from offshore wind farms would be part of the mix in reshaping the German energy system. According to an analysis adopted under his aegis, wind turbines in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are expected to produce more than 140 terawatt hours of electricity by 2050. That amount alone would cover about 25 percent of projected power-consumption needs.
For a long time, however, the politicians' hopes were not realized. Instead of feeding clean offshore wind power into the grid, the companies that entered the business, like E.on, RWE and Vattenfall, have reported nothing but setbacks in years gone by -- for a wide range of reasons.
To protect the sensitive Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer) tidal flats and wetlands, which stretch along Germany's North Sea coast, as well as to head off the tourism industry's likely protests against giant towers along beaches, the German government has required offshore wind farms to be sited far away from coastlines. The farms must be at least 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from beaches, which is significantly more than in other EU countries.
This has serious consequences. Logistics costs are disproportionately greater than in neighboring countries, some of which allow their wind farms to be sited less than 5 kilometers from the shore. An even more serious problem is that, at such great distances from the coasts, the water can be more than 40 meters (130 feet) deep.
"And at those depths, in rough seas, no one in the world had erected a tower that was 150 meters tall and weighed 1,000 tons and also had to withstand extreme wind loads," says Alpha Ventus project manager Wilfried Hube.
'Like the First Flight to the Moon'
The hope of being able to use technology and equipment from the oil and gas industries proved to be erroneous. The crane and repair ships needed to build large oil platforms were not suitable for the more delicate work on wind turbines. Even the foundations used to build drilling platforms proved to be useless to the offshore wind farm developers.
"It was like the first flight to the moon," explains Fritz Vahrenholt, the former CEO of wind turbine manufacturer Repower, who now heads electricity giant RWE's renewable energy subsidiary Innogy. "Almost everything had to be redesigned and developed."
This ranged from extremely strong foundations for the tall towers, to remotely maintained technology rooms, to expensive crane and cable-laying ships. Boats that are capable of making minute adjustments to sensitive rotors and heavy gondolas at great heights and in high seas were simply nonexistent until then.
"The entire phase was characterized by disillusionment and setbacks," says Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association. And with each new month, the corporations began to realize that they would be unable to keep their promises to the politicians. It wasn't just that they had underestimated the costly and complex technology. They were also poorly prepared for weather conditions in the North Sea, where storms and cold temperatures meant that the work could proceed on significantly fewer days than planned.
In Danger of Falling Behind
In an effort to at least partly make up for the delays, unbelievable scenes unfolded at the offshore construction site. "During periods of good weather," says Hube, "there were up to 23 giant ships with up to 350 workers in the Alpha Ventus area at one time."
But despite these efforts, the schedules were not adhered to, and the tightly calculated cost estimates fell apart. "Somehow everyone realized that things couldn't continue like that," says E.on executive Frank Mastiaux. Germany was in danger of falling behind in key technology.
The miserable mood in the industry and the delays did not go unnoticed in the political sphere. Then-Environment Minister Gabriel invited the key corporate executives to a number of crisis meetings. In addition, the government made a concerted effort to improve the conditions for the offshore wind farm operators.
Originally, the companies were to receive about 9 cents per kilowatt hour for their offshore electricity, but last year the rates were raised to 15 cents for the first 12 years. This is about three times the current market price and significantly more than terrestrial wind turbine operators receive.
Is the Technology Mature?
For critics of the offshore strategy, the new rates prove that electricity from the high seas cannot be competitive. They fear a risky endeavor that could cost taxpayers billions, because, as they argue, the technology isn't sufficiently mature yet.
Besides, the wind industry, which has been dominated by small and mid-sized companies for years, is troubled by the fact that former electric utility monopolies, like RWE or Vattenfall, are now entering the green energy business. The wind industry argues that it would be better to invest all the money in new, more powerful terrestrial wind turbines.
Besides, not even the offshore farms are capable of solving the biggest problem with wind energy. Even out at sea, there are days and weeks when there is no wind. One shouldn't allow oneself to be blinded by the huge numbers, warns Stephan Kohler, director of the government-owned German Energy Agency (Dena). Of the large amount of installed power, says Kohler, just 6 percent is really "reliably" available.
In concrete terms, this means that suitable replacement energy, in the form of power plants, for example, must also be available for wind turbines. And that is complex and expensive, because the energy providers can pass on the costs to consumers in the form of the general price of electricity.
Proponents of the offshore strategy see all of this as scaremongering. They firmly believe that it will be possible to solve such problems in the coming years with the help of intelligent grids and more storage options. They are also undaunted by the high startup costs, which, as the relevant executives at Siemens, RWE, E.on and EnBW claim, could be brought down significantly in the coming years.
"We are just at the beginning of a huge change," raves RWE executive Fritz Vahrenholt. A completely new, future-oriented industry is taking shape off the coasts of Europe, he says, an industry that no longer has anything in common with the made-to-order production of offshore turbines that was the case in the past.
"A new market worth billions is being created," says René Umlauft, who is in charge of renewable energy at Siemens. The German engineering giant is already demonstrating how this can work. In the Danish town of Brande, Siemens has started up an assembly line for the industrial production of offshore wind turbines. The factory produces about 30 machines a week. Siemens plans to build another plant in Great Britain.
Bard Engineering, a company headquartered in Emden, has also taken pains to prepare itself for the industrial offshore age. The company, which is one of the pioneers of the offshore movement, has an unconventional founder, the former Russian natural gas executive Arngolt Bekker.
As far back as 2003, the entrepreneur came up with the idea of building large wind farms off Germany's coast and providing the country with electricity from the turbines. Bekker had also brought along a few million euros in seed capital.
But, as Bard CEO Heiko Ross recalls, Bekker's idea didn't include companies capable of supplying the equipment and machines needed for the plans. "There was nothing that was really usable," says Ross.
Nevertheless, Bekker refused to back down from his idea, and Bard gradually began developing the technology and production facilities. The company, which has offices in the northern German port cities of Bremen, Cuxhaven and Emden, spent about €60 million to build its own ship, the Wind Lift 1, which was to be used to anchor wind turbines to the sea floor even under the most challenging weather conditions.
"We trained the setup and maintenance teams ourselves," says Ross. The company also builds its sophisticated offshore wind turbines on its own, in enormous buildings in Emden's port area that it has leased for this purpose. A portion of the company's workforce of about 1,000 people assembles the high-tech rotor blades, which are more than 60 meters long, in countless individual steps.
In a wing of one building, Bard employees are assembling the entire inner workings of the turbine towers. The so-called gondolas, which contain each turbine's power generator and transmission, are also being serially produced in the buildings, which are hundreds of meters long.
Some 25 of these gondolas, each of them five times as heavy as a combat tank, are stored on the company's grounds in Emden. They are scheduled to begin a journey toward the North Sea in the next few weeks. "They will be installed almost 100 kilometers off (the island of) Borkum," explains CEO Ross.
Bard plans to erect 80 turbines in the offshore location, each capable of generating 5 megawatts of power. This corresponds to the amount of power generated by a medium-sized coal power plant. But Bard Offshore 1 will only mark the beginning of a series of additional offshore power plants to be built in the coming years. Bard alone plans to build 12 similar wind farms. Now that all necessary ships and materials are available, "the actual installation should become routine," Ross hopes.
'A Steep and Expensive Learning Curve'
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.
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.