Germany wants to pepper its northern seas with offshore wind turbines as part of its ambitious energy revolution. But strict laws, technology problems and multiple delays are turning the massive enterprise into an expensive fiasco. Investors and the public are losing patience.
In his 1957 work “Book of Imaginary Beings,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes Zaratan, an ocean turtle that was so large that she served as an artificial island. Forests grew on her shell.
The managers of the British offshore firm Seajacks have developed such an affinity for the monster that they named their latest creation after the mythical being. Their Zaratan looks like a giant barge. It has a huge crane and four hydraulic legs, each of them 85 meters (280 feet) long. The legs allow it to lift itself out of the water like an insect.
The vehicle is an “installation vessel,” a tool of the offshore wind-power industry that does only one thing: It installs offshore wind turbines that that are sometimes taller than 150 meters.
On a recent Saturday, the ship was waiting at the wharf in the northern German port town of Cuxhaven to take four “monopiles,” each weighing 750 metric tons (1.64 million pounds), on board. Monopiles are 70-meter steel masts that serve as foundations for the offshore wind turbines.
The vessel, operated by the firm WindMW, was set to drive the first of these monumental poles 40 meters into the seabed at a site 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the North Sea island of Helgoland, heralding the beginning of a sea change in German power generation.
The hammers on the installation vessel will generate noise at levels of 160 decibels. Zaratan will hammer 80 monopiles into the sand in the next few months. After that, the Zaratan and its sister ship, the Leviathan, will install the giant rotors on the turbines.
Since harbor porpoises are sensitive to noise while raising their young in the summer, all of this has to happen in the fall and winter, under overcast skies and in heavy seas.
It will also cost a lot of money: at least €1.2 billion ($1.5 billion).
Germany ‘s Wind-Power Offensive
Jens Assheuer, 37, heads the pioneering project. He is wearing a pink tie as he sits in a leather armchair in his office in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven, gazing out at the Weser River through a large, panoramic window. He hasn’t slept much.
For weeks, the CEO of WindMW has been commuting back and forth between government offices in Berlin and his financial backers in Frankfurt. During teleconferences with his offshore planners in Denmark and England, he discusses things like the “Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Law” or the tiresome high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) transmission outlets.
Assheuer, an engineer by training, effortlessly rattles off this industry jargon. In general, he is a fast talker and likes to tear down the Autobahn at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) in his Audi A7. He is visibly tense. The entire financial world views with concern Germany’s hastily announced energy revolution, which aims to boost renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption in Germany by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 while phasing out all of Germany’s nuclear power reactors by 2022. Billions are at stake, and many aspects of the energy transition are in sorry shape.
By 2020, these modern pile dwellers plan to build an army of offshore wind turbines in the German Bight, the North Sea bay framed by parts of Germany and the Netherlands to the south and parts of Germany and Denmark to the east. Plans call for them to have a total energy output of 10,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 10 nuclear power plants. But this is only the beginning. But 2030, Germany expects to be producing 25,000 megawatts at its offshore wind farms.
These are audacious plans.
The current maps are laid out on a table in the office of Christian Dahlke at the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH), in Hamburg. Dahlke, who heads the Management of the Sea division, handles maritime claims and issues construction permits. Within the industry, he has been dubbed the “prime minister of the North Sea.”
“We’ve already received applications for 126 wind farms with a total of about 8,900 rotors,” Dahlke explains. Some of the proposed wind farms are more than 150 kilometers off the coast, at depths of 50 meters. They have names like “Jules Verne,” “Nautilus” and “Neptune.” Together, they will create a sea full of electricity-generating beanpoles.
None of these wind farms has actually been built. The small “Alpha Ventus” test field exists north of the island of Borkum, and the “Baltic 1” wind farm has already been built in the Baltic Sea. But Baltic 1 is near the coast.
Only one offshore wind-turbine maker has dared to venture out into the turbulent North Sea, where what German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer calls the “raw material of the North” blows especially powerfully. Prompted by Russian magnate Arngolt Bekker, construction began in 2010 on “Bard 1,” a gigantic wind farm that will consist of 80 five-megawatt turbines when complete.
Since then, hundreds of people have been desperately trying to save the project. It has already claimed one life, that of a diver who drowned. Some 40 workers sleep in bunks at the site on a “hotel platform.” The project is already three years behind schedule, and it threatens to create €1 billion in losses.
But there is no cause for alarm, at least according to Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, who gave offshore operators a pep talk in Cuxhaven last week. The energy revolution, he says, is “irreversible.”
But what happens when the failures and breakdowns begin to pile up? Who is ultimately responsible? Last week, the German cabinet approved a law that will provide favorable compensation provisions for offshore wind turbines that are losing money because of delays in connecting them to the power grid. But the issue is contentious within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition. Can consumers, who are paying for the subsidized renewable-energy revolution via their electricity bills, be burdened even further?
Kick-off of a Massive Building Phase
In the midst of this squabbling, the first major wave of construction is about to begin. Starting September 1, when the idle period imposed to protect harbor porpoises ends, the noise of pile-drivers will fill the air at many sites. Jack-up platforms like the Thor and the Odin will be operating in the swells, while lay barges will roll out underwater cable.
Six corporations will start construction in the coming days. German electric utilities RWE and E.on are also building large wind farms near the WindMW site. Trianal GmbH, an alliance of municipal utilities, is building a wind farm 45 kilometers north of Borkum, while the Swedish power company Vattenfall will be at work 70 kilometers from the North Sea resort island of Sylt.
Windreich AG has chartered the world’s most powerful crane ship, the Innovation, whose crane can lift 1,500 metric tons. In the next few days, the ship will haul steel tripods out to sea, which will serve as the foundations for the “Global Tech I” wind farm more than 90 kilometers offshore.
The entire North Sea coast is gearing up to implement the various monumental projects. Wharfs with heavy-duty hoists and new offshore terminals are being built all along the coast, stretching from the port of Bremerhaven to that of Husum, just south of the Danish border. Behind them are plants where massive lattice frames and pipes are being welded together.
Part 2: Helgoland’s Prominent Role
The red cliffs of Helgoland tower above it all. Soon more than 200 turbines will be rotating near the island. The old pirates’ nest is being transformed into a base camp for offshore pipe fitters.
It’s ironic that this is happening on Helgoland, an island of lobster shacks and flower boxes made of exposed concrete, where the police ride bikes and the last murder was committed in 1719 – with a pitchfork.
The so-called “butter ferries” used to bring up to 900,000 visitors a year to the island, nicknamed the “booze rock.” Today, Helgoland still gets an average of 300,000 visitors a year. The average age of island residents is 59.
But Helgoland is about to get some fresh blood. The prediction is that about 150 people will constantly be needed on site for service and maintenance. New buildings and quay walls are already going up in the old South Harbor. “This project alone is costing €30 million,” says Jörg Singer.
The mayor of the island, a tall man with gelled hair, lived in Florida for many years. He expects a “job miracle.” “We’ll be the world’s first offshore maintenance island,” he says. To tame his euphoria, he occasionally glances at the picture of a turbaned Indian guru above his desk.
Behind the next door down the hall, tourism director Klaus Furtmeier is dreaming of boat tours to the choppy waters surrounding the wind farms, a pastime he calls “propeller watching.”
The first water bus for the mechanics is already docked at the pier. It’s a speedboat that makes the trip to the wind farms in 40 minutes.
The craft has a rubber strip on its bow that allows it to dock directly to a wind turbine mast. From there, the men jump onto a platform and take an elevator about 80 meters up to the nacelle, which houses the turbine machinery itself. Some check lubricant levels and repair generators while others remove rust.
A control room in Cuxhaven monitors each nacelle electronically. In emergencies, rescue personnel can descend from a helicopter, hovering at dizzying heights, down to a “winch-down platform.”
Some of the offshore wind farms will cover areas of 70 or more square kilometers, surrounded by choppy seas with high waves.
RWE already has accommodations on Helgoland for its courageous and acrobatic maintenance and repair workers. The company had a complex of 30 apartment built for its offshore personnel. WindMW plans to house its workers at the upscale Atoll Ocean Resort. Every morning, cooks will make sandwiches for the offshore workers.
Unexploded ordnance is a problem on Helgoland. “Until 1951, the British used Helgoland as a training site for the Royal Air Force,” Singer explains, pointing to a helicopter flying by outside and saying it holds “the man from the weapons-clearing service.” Yet another British bomb was discovered during work in the island’s South Harbor.
In addition to the post-war explosives on the island of Helgoland, Allied pilots, in an effort to save fuel, often dumped their unused payloads into the North Sea when returning from bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
As a result, Assheuer’s maritime construction site, 23 kilometers from the Helgoland coast, is also contaminated. Early last week, sonar devices were still scanning the seafloor for old bombs, while divers used underwater moored balloons to recover explosives.
The harbor porpoise is also causing problems. To ensure that the mammals don’t suffer hearing damage, the authorities recently imposed a noise ceiling of 160 decibels during the ramming process. They’ll make sure that it doesn’t get any louder than that on Saturday.
To offset the noise, Assheuer has to install a “bubble veil,” a sort of curtain of air bubbles around the turbine sites. Then, according to the regulations, the porpoises are to be scared off with hooting noises, followed by vibrations and low-intensity hammering. Only then can the hammers be operated at full force.
All of this slows things down and costs money. In addition, seasickness prevents up to 30 percent of workers from working in rough weather.
The engineers are constantly entering uncharted territory in terms of the technical and logistical challenges. Fritz Vahrenholt, long the head of RWE’s green energy division Innogy, likened the project to the “first flight to the moon.”
Nothing goes according to plan. For example, in July, RWE tried to load a 550-metric-ton jacket foundation from the wharf in Cuxhaven onto an installer vessel. During loading, the elevated ferry sank into the harbor mud because the cargo was too heavy. Now the transfer has to be completely reconfigured.
Were politicians in Berlin too hasty when they embarked on the energy revolution? Is the dream world of windmills on water even affordable anymore?
The HVDC converter stations are causing the biggest problems. They consist of giant converter platforms directly adjacent to the wind farms, where they collect the alternating current generated by the turbines, convert it into high-voltage direct current and transmit it to land via long cables.
Since the British and the Danes build their wind farms much closer to the coast, they don’t need any HVDC converter stations. The Germans, however, who don’t want to spoil their views of the horizon with propellers, have to transmit their green energy through up to 200 kilometers of underwater cables. This has to be done with direct current to avoid a tremendous loss of current.
Tennet, the Danish grid operator, has ordered seven of these converter stations. But there have been many problems. “I got half of my gray hair because of the HVDC stations,” says Assheuer. Offshore official Dahlke admits: “The situation is terrible.”
Some of the fault lies with two companies, ABB and Siemens, which initially jumped at the chance to manufacture the HVDC stations. But now they don’t know what to do next, especially with technology that has hardly been tested.
The dimensions of the converter stations are also causing headaches. ABB’s first HVDC station, the “Borwin alpha,” is a giant yellow box, with dimensions of 52 x 35 x 22 meters. It was hauled out to sea on a crane ship and is now positioned some 80 meters, at its highest point, above the waves.
The goliath was supposed to be working by now, taking up energy from the “Bard 1” turbine field. But because of construction delays at the troubled wind farm, there is not electricity available to test the Borwin alpha. In fact, no one knows whether it actually works.
The operators of Bard 1 – three years behind schedule, facing problems at every turn and keeping the project surrounded by a veil of secrecy – are keeping their distance from the press.
Siemens, which is now having its first HVDC station (“Helwin 1”) built on a wharf in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, has also cloaked itself in secrecy. Even senior offshore managers are not permitted to photograph anything at the site, and cell phones are banned. The company has already had to pay €500 million in additional costs and penalties because it is more than a year behind schedule.
To make matters worse, even the cables are presenting a problem. The enormous amounts of cable required have led to production bottlenecks.
It is clear that the first wind farms will likely be complete by the end of 2013, but they still won’t be transmitting any electricity to the mainland because the necessary outlets will be missing.
Delays and Risks
A battle has been raging over who should pay for the slowdowns. Tennet made an “unconditional grid connection commitment,” says Assheuer.
But the company, which is owned by the Dutch government, cannot meet its obligations. According to a letter from the German government, it will cost an additional €15 billion to connect all offshore turbines in the first construction stage to the grid by 2020.
In light of these panic reports, the entire energy revolution has come to a standstill. Many next-generation wind farms have been put on hold for now. The industry is taking a wait-and-see approach, looking on to observe how the pioneers fare.
It is already clear that everything will become more expensive. The offshore operators are already paid up to 19 cents per kilowatt hour in compensation for electricity fed into the grid. It’s estimated that the average household will pay an additional €50 next year for electricity because of the many green-energy subsidies.
The full effect of the calamities on the high seas will only become apparent after that – and driving prices up even further.
Strict laws are to blame. Dahlke’s agency, for example, requires an “environmental compatibility test” for each operator. But biologists are only slowing beginning to realize how harmful the wind turbines are to wildlife.
The turbines pose an enormous threat to blackbirds, thrushes and robins. New data show that the migratory birds orient themselves toward illuminated points in bad weather. As a result, large numbers of birds can end up flying into the flashing rotors.
RWE is now realizing how hastily the plans were forged. The company had originally planned to build a second wind farm (“Kaskasi”) off Helgoland, and it had already obtained all the necessary permits. It has since emerged that the proposed site is in an important habitat for loons – meaning RWE can forget about the project.
Optimism in the Face of Challenges
Despite all these problems, everyone remains optimistic. But what else can they do? Germany has made a deal with the devil. “Everyone wants expansion,” says Dahlke, “and it will happen.”
The mayor of Helgoland agrees. Singer looks tanned as he stands at the sea mole and gazes out onto the horizon. He can look forward to more income and more activity on his island.
“Our beautiful natural environment won’t be disturbed,” he says. “The windmills are more than 20 kilometers away, and they’re almost invisible.”
But the fact that the power plants are being built so far away is precisely why the projects are so plagued with problems. “Out there,” says Singer, pointing at the choppy, gray water, “is where the fate of energy policy will be decided in the next two years.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan