The German government and the country’s energy companies have launched a massive joint offshore wind park project aimed at overcoming the source’s technical insecurities.
Last month, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel gave the green light to build the first German offshore wind energy test park in the North Sea.
The German government funds the project, called Borkum West, with some $65 million, used mainly for risk-minimizing measures and systems engineering, with an additional $165 million invested by energy utilities Vattenfall, Eon, EWE, and wind-turbine manufacturers REpower and Multibrid.
The world’s largest offshore turbines are seven 3.6 megawatt machines off the east coast of Ireland. Borkum West is comprised of 12 5-MW wind turbines that are taller than the Eiffel Tower. So by sheer size only, the project is ambitious. By 2008, officials say, the offshore park will deliver electricity to German households.
With the park, Berlin aims to push the offshore technology to meet its climate protection goals set forth by the Kyoto Protocol and become more independent from oil and gas imports.
Wind accounts for 4.3 percent of the German electricity production; under Kyoto, Berlin has agreed to raise that share to 25 percent, with offshore parks then responsible for most of the production. Berlin already funds wind energy with a feed-in tariff and recently signaled to help with infrastructure costs.
Germany’s largest energy company, Eon, is taking part because it believes in the commercial success of offshore wind energy, company spokesman Nikolaus Schmidt told United Press International.
“Until 2011, we have set the goal for ourselves to install 500 MW in offshore turbines,” he said.
Eon hopes that the consistency of wind flow – a key onshore problem – is greater off the coast. Land onshore parks have to battle with greatly varying wind speeds, which in turn make electricity production insecure and impose great stresses on electrical grids. Offshore wind parks, Eon hopes, may benefit from a stronger and at the same time more constant wind flow as there are no obstructions over water.
The open sea also enables companies to construct giant connected turbine fields, with distances between individual machines of up to 0.6 miles – space for such projects on land simply don’t exist in Germany.
Denmark and Britain already have roughly 300 offshore towers turning in shallow waters of the North Sea, but Germany has been hesitant because of environmental concerns (the near shorelines are national parks) and tourist pleas – the many German islands off the coast are tourist hot spots, and officials there don’t want their customers to discover giant wind towers when they’re gazing at the horizon.
Therefore, the first German test park will be built roughly 35 miles off the coast, where towers have to be installed in waters of up to 100 feet deep.
“Technologically, that’s entering unknown territory,” Joern Boecker, engineering expert of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Applied Sciences Bremerhaven, Friday told UPI in a telephone interview.
That’s likely why other companies, such as Enercon, Germany’s largest wind turbine producer, have decided to stay away from Borkum West.
“They don’t see the business with offshore yet,” Boecker said. “They want to wait and see what happens.”
Enercon may be wary of the many technical insecurities that are floating offshore: Turbines are more inaccessible, and conditions in the open water are harsh, abrasive and corrosive, raising material and maintenance costs. On top of that comes the rising steel price, which has made turbine production more expensive no matter its location.
“And if you’re installing turbines so far off the coast, you also need long cable connections, making it even more expensive,” Boecker said.
Even at Eon, a company with a massive cash flow allowing the option to embark on risky research, officials didn’t want to go it alone.
“With such enormous investments, teaming up with others makes sense,” Schmidt said.
At least the cable issue has been solved in the case of Borkum West. All utility companies active in the region (there are more parks in planning) agreed to finance a joint cable route via the island of Norderney. The project will cost nearly $240 million, with $40 million paid by the German state.
Despite the high initial costs, offshore wind energy in the long run will become cost-effective, at least in comparison to fossil fuel-based energy, experts say. Russia has just announced it will raise gas prices by 15 percent. Europe, which relies heavily on Russian gas, pays $230 per cubic meters for it. Oil prices are unlikely to drop, observers say.
As projects show success and technology becomes cheaper and more sophisticated, offshore will become even more attractive.
“This will take the same path as onshore: There is caution with the first projects, but investments will in the long run take off,” Boecker said.
By Stefan Nicola
UPI Energy Correspondent
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