Sunday, October 23, 2011

The wind gives and the wind takes

Petroleum, natural gas and coal industry leaders have mounted a furious ad campaign aimed at convincing the public that they are the provider of millions of jobs, that they are becoming cleaner (if not greener) by the minute. At the same time, they drop not-too-subtle suggestions that renewable energy (particularly offshore wind) is an untested, unpredictable and therefore unreliable technology.

If they are successful (they've already gotten Congress to drop the term "renewable" in favor of "clean", they could bring a halt to the development of one of our best options for avoiding major climatic changes.

Offshore wind is neither perfect nor benign. There is no such energy source. (GW)

Offshore Turbines More Powerful than First Nuclear Plant

By Alexander Smoltczyk
Spiegel Online International
October 22, 2011

Part II

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.

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.

Surrounded by Water the Color of Wet Concrete

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


Post a Comment

<< Home