Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Sea of Megawatts

For those still questioning the viability of offshore wind energy technology, consider the following: Germany's largest offshore wind farm produces 12 times as much energy as the world's first nuclear power plant. That is a more useful and fair comparison of technologies than are used in most energy debates these days (think Cape Wind). One must remember that offshore wind technology is still nascent and that the resource is vast and virtually untapped. (GW)

Offshore Turbines More Powerful than First Nuclear Plant

By Alexander Smoltczyk
Spiegel Online International
October 22, 2011

Part I

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.

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.

A Sea of Megawatts

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.

(Read Part II tomorrow)


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