Transmission Stalls European Offshore Wind Power

Germany’s first offshore wind farm has been built and is now generating electricity. Dozens more wind farms are slated for construction over the next few years – as part of the German government’s push to install 10,000 megawatts (MW) offshore wind capacity by 2020. But all of them will need to plug into powerful grids, both offshore and onshore, to transport the thousands of MW of additional renewable energy across the country and possibly beyond, and these may be slow in coming.

Germany’s first offshore wind farm has been online since the end of last year. The twelfth and last wind turbine in the Alpha Ventus park, off the North Sea island of Borkum, was built in November. The park is the first to employ a dozen 5-MW-class wind turbines, located 45 kilometers (34 miles) offshore in waters 30 meters (33 yards) deep. It will provide enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

Alpha Ventus is the first of many planned wind parks in Germany. The government has approved plans to dedicate special zones off its northern coast to house up to 40 offshore wind parks that could provide electricity to more than 8 million households. The plan calls for setting aside zones between 12 and 200 kilometers of the northern shores. Of the 40 wind farms, 30 will be in the North Sea and 10 in the Baltic Sea. More than 25 of the planned farms have already received approval, with the bulk of them in the North Sea.

In total there will be more than 12,000 MW of offshore wind electricity by 2030, the equivalent of 12 medium-size nuclear plants, according to the German Federal Transport Ministry. The government’s plan is to double the current amount of energy supplied by wind in the country to 12 percent by 2020. Indeed, wind plays a big role in the energy plans of German policymakers to satisfy 30 percent of the country’s energy needs with renewable energy resources by 2030.

There is plenty of momentum. This month, Spain’s Iberdrola Renovables acquired the building rights for the Ventotec Ost 2 offshore wind complex in the German zone of the Baltic Sea. The company purchased the rights from a joint venture between Deutsche Erneuerbare Energien and Ventotec.

The German deal is the latest in Iberdrola’s ambitious expansion strategy. Together with Vattenfall, the company recently won construction rights to build one of the largest offshore wind farms in the world off the shores of the United Kingdom.

The Ventotec Ost 2 wind farm will have 80 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 5 MW and the project is expected to generate a total 1,200 gigawatt-hours annually. The farm will be built about 40 kilometers from the shore of the northern part of the wind area known as Westlich Adlergrund, in waters 39 meters deep.

Build and They Will Come. Or Maybe They Won’t.

Despite this deal and others in the works, challenges remain in Germany’s nascent wind power industry, the largest being, perhaps, the need to build new or upgrade existing grids to transport the additional “green” energy.

One of the problems is the lack of incentive for grid operators, which in Germany are also the power generators, to open their doors to competitors. And while this problem isn’t unique to Germany, the country, together with France, has moved slowly in establishing true network competition. European Wind Energy Association chief executive Christian Kjaer has publicly criticized politicians for not treating electricity transmission networks as what he calls their right name — “natural monopolies.”

Even though two of Germany’s biggest energy companies, E.on and Vattenfall, are among the biggest investors in the Alpha Ventus venture, they and other energy generators in the country still view wind as a risky investment compared with their highly profitable nuclear and coal-fired electricity operations. The construction of a wind farm, for instance, can easily consume between €500 million and €1 billon, not to mention the high costs of maintaining facilities at sea, according to the German Wind Energy Association (BWE).

Add to that the need to upgrade grids, or at least the parts of them, to support high-voltage direct current (HVDC) technology, which is the technology of choice of wind farm operators. A key advantage is that it offers lower electricity loss over long distances. The problem, however is that high-voltage alternate current (HVAC) is the mainstay in Germany and across Europe, and will continue to play a role. How big a role is a matter of debate.

“For offshore, the choice of technology is clearly DC but there’s still very animated discussion about the new installations on the ground,” said Antonella Battaglini, senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, adding that the energy industry in Germany, Europe and beyond needs to “think about the architecture of grids from a completely new perspective.”

Sven Teske, a renewable energy expert with Greenpeace in Germany, said Germany’s grids “are already falling behind” and have “very little free capacity” and warned that without super grid infrastructure, the country’s newly built wind farms could have a short life.

John Blau is a U.S. journalist based in Germany. He specializes in business, technology and environmental reporting and also produces extensive industry research. John has written extensively about environmental issues in Germany.

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