Winds of Change Offshore Turbines More Powerful than First Nuclear Plant

The term "energy revolution" sounds light and airy enough, but how do human beings manage to wrest electricity from the sea? Germany's largest offshore wind farm, a power plant surrounded by a hostile environment, produces 12 times as much energy as the world's first nuclear power plant.

From a distance, say about three nautical miles, the future looks very simple. You stick a wind turbine up into the air, and it turns. Ralf Klooster can explain this to his five-year-old at home. The more difficult question is why Daddy has to drive to the jetty at Norddeich harbor every morning at six to make sure that those simple things out there in the water keep turning.

"It's not as easy as you think," says Klooster. He is a native of the East Frisia region of northwest Germany, has the physique of an Olympic rower and looks as if E.on has cast him for its advertising photos. Klooster is actually a custodian of sorts for the Alpha Ventus offshore wind farm, 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the North Sea island of Borkum. Even at high wind speeds, he is able to finish his sentences. As Klooster says, none of this is easy.

He awoke this morning at 4:45 a.m., boiled water for his tea (he uses "NaturWatt" green electricity, at 23.6 cents per kilowatt hour) and drove to the jetty to board the "Wind Force I."

It sounds like "Air Force One," but it's merely the service boat for the Alpha Ventus wind farm, which consists of 12 five-megawatt towers and produces electricity for 50,000 households. It's the largest offshore wind farm  in the country. The morning greetings: "Moin!" - "Moin!"

Germany is the first highly developed, industrialized nation to decide to be dependent on renewable energy in the future. Germany is also the country where nuclear fission was discovered and the internal combustion engine was invented. By 2020 Germany, a country dotted with auto plants, chemical factories and steel mills, is to derive fully one fifth of its power from wind turbines.

The Bet Germany Cannot Afford to Lose

The goal, according to the proponents of wind energy, is to end Germany's epochal dependence on petroleum, so that it will no longer be reliant on a country ruled by someone like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The goal is to do nothing less than change the climate system and set the agenda for the 21st century. A bigger task is hardly imaginable. Germany has made a bet that it cannot afford to lose.

And everyone is watching. If the phase-out  works in Germany, and if the Germans can at least partially replace nuclear power with wind energy, it can work in Great Britain, Chile, France and California. Germany has become a test laboratory. Meanwhile, Ralf Klooster will have his hands full until his workday ends at 6:30 p.m. "Okay, let's get going," he says.

A few men in overalls are standing by the boat, smoking. Others are hoisting boxes full of screws on board, "Big Bags" filled with tools, canisters of grease and lubricants, and duffel bags containing protective suits and provisions. The entire stern is filled with equipment and supplies.

Three Dutchmen, who are joining the crew for the first time, are told that if they have to vomit they should do it overboard ("the easy way") and not into the toilet. Then a safety film is shown, in which a woman puts on a life vest to a soundtrack of club music. The Dutchmen have already dozed off.

The Wind Force I plies between the mainland and the wind farm, as long as the weather is acceptable. It's a four-hour round trip. Helicopters are used during the winter and in bad weather. Batteries and transformers need constant maintenance, and all moveable parts on the crane and turbine have to be oiled and lubricated regularly. The switches have to be tested regularly, as do the fire protection systems, the lights, the life vests and, if there are control devices, those too. Wind is clean, but it's also very labor-intensive.

Joselito from Manila has tied his paint-spattered overalls around his hips. He is one of the four "coaters" whose job it is to constantly paint the towers to protect against rust. He works as a painter at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg during the winter, but now he is here. "Wind energy? Good, very good," he says. "Good work."

Looking Like Roadies on a Heavy Metal Tour

On this morning, three mechanics with turbine maker Areva Wind were driven to the pier in a black van. With their tattoos, ponytails and black overalls, they look like roadies on a heavy metal tour. But they're just here to service the crane on tower 11.

The roughly 20 men on board the Wind Force 1 aren't necessarily Green Party voters. In fact, they look more like people who might be working on plutonium plants, if they existed offshore. Or perhaps not?

"The difference," says one man who is leaning against the deck crane, wearing glasses and a Hulk Hogan goatee, "is that if a wind tower falls over, it isn't likely to cause a lot of damage out here."

He wears two bulky ear protectors on his temples, which protrude from his face like insect eyes. The man's name is Andreas Klaasen, and he says he likes working offshore, being sent to work as a supervisor in Taiwan, Scotland or Belgium. "In the offshore world, people listen when you talk." Then he puts on his ear protectors, which are actually headphones, and listens to Shakira and the top 100 hits for the remainder of the trip.

Klooster says that he wouldn't describe himself as the custodian of the wind farm, but rather as an "offshore service technician."

And then the 12 wind turbines suddenly appear on the horizon. The towers look incongruous and yet somehow as if they belong there, their rotors turning above the grayish-green North Sea waters. Each tower weighs about 1,000 tons. They look like an art installation from a distance -- not one that makes a lot of sense, but beautiful nonetheless.

Pages of Conditions and Regulations

On Nov. 9, 2001, wind power pioneer Ingo de Buhr received permission from the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic agency to build and operate an offshore wind farm beyond the 12-mile zone marking Germany's territorial waters.

The license included 43 pages of requirements, conditions and regulations. Item 6.1.4, for example, describes the painting requirements: "The towers are to be painted yellow up to a height of 15 meters (49 feet) above the HAT (Highest Astronomical Tide) (RAL 1023 pursuant to DIN 6171, Part 1)."

The license also requires the operator to make allowances for military flight safety, to ensure that hazard lights are on at night and to monitor the facility's impact on marine mammals and bird migration. According to item 24, when the facility is no longer in use it must be "properly disposed of on land."

Four years later, De Buhr sold the license for €5 million ($6.85 million) to the German Offshore Wind Energy Foundation, a deep-pocketed association of power producers, banks, manufacturers and operators.

The bow of the Wind Force I is now pressing up against tower AV 4, the rubber squeaking against the steel tower in the waves. One after the other, the men climb onto the tower. Wearing their survival suits, they climb the rungs of the ladder to the platform. They will spend the next six hours servicing the tower.

The massive guillotine-like rotor comes down from above every two seconds. The 61-meter rotor slicing through the air, seemingly without making any noise, is longer than the wing of an Airbus 380.

A Sea of Megawatts

In strong winds, the tips of the rotors travel at racecar-like speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). The rotors wear out the fastest, and not, as one might expect, the transmission or the foundations in the water.

This is no longer some environmentalist's toy. These are industrial plants surrounded by open water. The 12 wind turbines are in fact 12 power plants, albeit very small ones, each with an output of five megawatts, which just happens to be the same as that of the first nuclear power plant in Obninsk, Russia, which opened in 1954.

The German government plans to install another 10,000 megawatts offshore by 2020, and 25,000 megawatts by 2030.

That would mean another 5,000 of these wind turbines, or 400 wind farms the size of Alpha Ventus. Large swaths of the German Bight would then resemble a pincushion from afar, turning the body of water into a sea of megawatts.

When that happens, dozens of vessels like the Wind Force I will be needed, as well as hundreds of divers and thousands of men like Ralf Klooster. Germany would then be a true republic of wind.

Klooster was involved in the construction of the facility and is familiar with every bolt. He understands Alpha Ventus the way someone understands something he has built himself. "My father is someone who could do everything with his hands. He even built a replica of a horse-drawn carriage for us." His father was a riveter at the Thyssen Nordseewerke shipbuilding company, until the crisis hit the shipyards and he switched to working as a truck driver.

Nordseewerke is now called SIAG, a supplier to the offshore wind industry. The transformer station for Alpha Ventus was built in the former shipyard where Klooster's father once worked as a riveter. "Most people here," says Klooster, "haven't realized yet what wind energy  means for the coast" -- namely, the transformation of the economically ailing East Frisia region. Some industry insiders hope that Germany's new energy policy will result in as much as €100 billion being pumped into the offshore wind economy.

Wind Companies Earning Millions

Two leading wind turbine makers, Areva Wind and REPower, have their production plants in the port city of Bremerhaven. Few people in the hinterlands are familiar with the name Aloys Wobben, but the founder of the wind power company Enercon is now a multibillionaire and one of Germany's richest people. Thanks to former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, companies  that got their start in garages were able to earn millions upon millions during the years when Germany was run by a Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party coalition government. And thanks to the disaster in Fukushima, they will be earning many more millions in the future.

Enercon makes use of shipyards in the northern German cities of Emden, Kiel and Papenburg, has built the first wind rotor ship, and supplies its wind turbines around the world from its headquarters in East Frisia, says Klooster.

E.on, in a joint venture with the Danish energy utility DONG and the United Arab Emirates, is building a 630-megawatt offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary. The wind farm will have enough capacity to replace a small nuclear power plant.

When the wind blows, that is.

"It blows," says Klooster. In fact, the wind offshore blows at an average speed of Force 5, which is about 30 kilometers per hour, and it also blows much more uniformly than on land.

At the first energy summit in the German Chancellery, on April 3, 2006, it was decided that a large-scale pilot project would be built near Borkum. Three energy suppliers, E.on, Vattenfall and the regional utility EWE, joined forces to form a consortium known as DOTI, which now operates Alpha Ventus. The then Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel contributed another €50 million for additional research linked to the project.

The site had to be far offshore, outside the boundaries of the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea) national park, far from shipping lanes and certainly out of view of the canopied beach chairs on the East Frisian resort islands of Norderney and Juist.

The Largest Open Water Wind Farm

The pilot wind farm was to cost about €175 million, a number that eventually went up to €250 million. The farther offshore a wind farm is located, the stronger the wind. But the greater distance from the coast also makes the project most costly and logistically complex.

Alpha Ventus is currently the largest wind farm to be built under open-sea conditions. The work was delayed by a year because of bad weather -- and too much wind.

The assembly of a wind turbine on the high seas is easier than a Space Shuttle mission, but not by much. Ocean currents and high waves make for difficult working conditions, preventing the crane from accurately placing the base, after lowering it through 30 meters of North Sea water, onto the piles that have been driven into the seafloor. In bad weather, three jack-up rigs, a cable-laying ship, various tugboats, a dredger and a guard vessel must wait until conditions improve. This costs several hundred thousand euros a day.

The wind gives and the wind takes. That's Klooster's philosophy.

The tubes for the base had to be rammed 30 meters into the seafloor and then reinforced with concrete. The plants -- the tower, the nacelle and turbine, and the rotor star -- were then built with the help of a jack-up rig. To complicate matters even further, the 100-ton rotor star can only be mounted on the hub when there is no wind at all.

Transported, Calculated and Adjusted

The base elements, which are as tall as buildings, were welded together in Scotland and Norway. The tubes in the seafloor came from Rostock in northeastern Germany, the transformers from Regensburg in Bavaria, and the rotor blade from Bremerhaven and Stade, near Hamburg. Everything had to be transported across the water, calculated and adjusted.

There is a water tank on board the Wind Force 1 so that the water in the collecting tank beneath the transformers can be replaced periodically. On land, a hose would be sufficient for this purpose. But for offshore turbines a tank has be moved from the pier to the ship, transported 60 kilometers and then hoisted into the air from a pivoting deck with a crane.

Surrounded by Water the Color of Wet Concrete

The Fino 1 is a research platform complete with fish sonar devices, a sonar tower, free fall penetrometers, and radar devices and cameras to track migratory birds. The equipment is capable of tracking every fish and every seal here. Divers take regular samples to determine what kinds of traces sea creatures leave behind. The large conservation groups had insisted on this additional research. The Fino 1 is the wind farm's environment conscience. The migratory bird cameras and other instruments need electricity, and the most obvious solution would have been to lay a cable to the transformer station, but the environment ministry opted to install a diesel generator instead -- the cheaper alternative.

The helicopter landing pad on the transformer station is soiled with seagull droppings. The birds should have been driven away with "startling techniques," like playing loud march music, monkey calls or church bells. But nothing worked, says Klooster, not even the church bells. "The animals are pain-free. They just want to land somewhere," he says.

The harbor porpoises were driven away, however. They were unable to tolerate the 15,000 ram strokes needed to drive the piles for each tower into the seafloor. No one knows whether the porpoises will return.

A dive boat -- the "Oil Express," under Danish ownership and sailing under the Liberian flag -- is anchored to turbine AV 1. The ship costs about €10,000 a day. The structure needs underwater repairs, after pressure from the supply ship during docking caused some parts to come loose. It takes three tries before the Wind Force I has successfully docked. The three Dutchmen climb onto the dive boat, where they will spend the next 14 days, surrounded by water that has now taken on the color of wet concrete.

If the wind were not blowing and the ship's engines were shut off, it would be possible to hear the whooshing noise the rotors make, the same noise they make on land. Each rotation generates about 59 cents of revenues.

Built With Tainted Money

That's because Germany's Renewable Energy Act (EEG) guarantees offshore wind farm operators a so-called feed-in compensation of 13 cents per kilowatt hour. Alpha Ventus delivered 190 gigawatt hours of electricity in its first nine months of operation. The 59-cent estimate is based on an average of nine rotations per minute.

This sounds good enough, but to recoup the €250 million in construction costs, the rotor stars would probably have to rotate at the speed of airplane propellers.

The costs of operation, from Joselito's buckets of paint to the Oil Express dive boat, are deducted from the 59-cent figure.

But for the environmental purist, Alpha Ventus was built with tainted money in the first place. Vattenfall and E.on operated the Brunsbüttel and Krümmel nuclear power plants, which have now been shut down. E.on owns four of the nuclear power plants still in operation, including two plants particularly despised by the environmental movement, Brokdorf and Grohde. And turbine manufacturer Multibrid is part of the French energy conglomerate Areva, which has built countless nuclear plants in France. Power supplier EnBW, which has its own nuclear history, owns a quarter of EWE.

The energy may be clean and renewable, but the people behind it are not.

Hard-to-read rules and regulations are posted everywhere, and all of them cost money. One rule, for example, requires that there can never be fewer than three workers on a tower. Every spot of rust has to be removed in accordance with regulations, which is why three men have to be shipped out to the wind farm to climb the towers with their safety suits and paint buckets.

A Milder Version of Navy SEAL Training

Anyone who steps onto one of the towers is required to have completed a health check and survival training, a milder version of Navy SEAL training that involves escaping from a sunken helicopter. These are the regulations.

Whenever the rotors are serviced, they have to be switched off from a control station on land. Normally, the rotors are shut down automatically when the wind is either too weak or too strong; that is, when it's blowing faster than 90 kilometers per hour.

"Each individual plant," says Klooster, "currently requires about 450 maintenance hours a year. We have to get this down to 150." That would be the minimum to make the turbines at least somewhat profitable. But everything is so incredibly difficult.

The amount of time the ship's crew can work in a single stretch will be reduced to ten hours soon. "When that happens," says Klooster, "we'll have to go out with two crews. It'll be expensive. They're not as strict about this in England."

Germany takes the same unconditional approach to regulating the wind that it applied to its decision to phase-out nuclear power. Since the political winds have shifted in Berlin, there is no longer an alternative to renewable energy. Germany has made its commitment to renewables, and now it has to stick to its guns. Klooster feels that all of this is "not normal." Fukushima, he says, did not radically alter his worldview. In fact, it only reinforced it. This sort of thing can happen.

Klooster is neither a Green Party nor a leftist voter. "You can't trust parties. If I had my way, I would assemble the cabinet myself," he says, but points out that this, of course, isn't possible.

"Sustainable Development of the Energy Supply"

By now it's shortly before 4 p.m. The men are collected from the towers like May bugs from trees. The wind has died down a little and the waves aren't as high anymore. Once they're back on the boat, the technicians stagger to the stern and plop themselves down to perform the arduous task of removing their safety suits. When they take off their helmets, their heads are covered with sweat. Afterwards Klaasen remains on deck, puts on his headphones and types his shift report into a laptop. The roadies smoke while Joselito tries to talk about Hamburg, but no one really understands what he is saying.

The rest sit down inside the dimly lit mess room and stare at a small, flickering TV set on the wall, which is tuned to RTL 2, where a German reality show is being broadcast. The workers don't talk much. Working offshore is an exhausting business -- the noise of the engines, climbing around in a protective suit, the constant rocking of the waves, the need to be vigilant and the persistent wind. These men have just completed ten hours of what the Renewable Energy Act describes as "sustainable development of the energy supply." They hardly even have enough energy left to watch RTL 2.

Behind the cloud of spray at the stern, the 12 wind turbines slowly slip back into the horizon until they disappear altogether in the mist. A power cable as thick as a man's arm lies in the sand about 20 meters below the keel. The cable, and the electricity it conveys, is the reason for all of this.

As soon as the ship pulls into port, Klooster will get into his black VW Fox and drive home as quickly as possible. In the evening, the floor in his house will still feel like it's rocking. It doesn't go away with time, as if to remind people like Klooster that offshore wind is a unique thing, and that it will remain that way. It's a rather cumbersome way to build a future.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan