In Depth: Germany races to plug the offshore wind gap

Bart de Poorter pauses for a second when asked for his take on the messy emergence of Germany’s offshore wind sector. “It’s all seemed rather un-German, hasn’t it?” he says.

De Poorter, deputy director at Belgium’s GeoSea, which is working at Trianel’s Borkum West 2 project, speaks for many in expressing his surprise at the combustible state of Germany’s offshore sector. It was sparked in large part by a letter sent to the government last November by TenneT, the transmission system operator (TSO) for the North Sea.

Until then, many people in Europe had looked to the German model with envy. Unlike the UK, where wind farms are being linked to shore individually — an inefficient system, claim critics — Germany had tasked the TSO with building an initial nine “sockets” at sea that nearby projects could plug into.

Then came TenneT’s letter, telling the government it had none of the things needed to deliver the sockets on time — the money, the high-voltage direct-current components or the right staff.

At once, the downside of Germany’s plans for the North Sea was laid bare, with a long list of projects under construction, including Borkum West 2 and RWE’s Nordsee Ost, stranded until the government could find an answer.

On 2 July, the government tipped its hand. Although legislation will not be passed until later this year, Berlin has embraced the need to shift much of the financial liability for delayed or damaged sockets onto the public purse — one of TenneT’s key demands.

This raises a host of new concerns, including the possibility of a public backlash if the price becomes too high. But for now, the policy allows developers to move forward with confidence.

Germany’s offshore sector lags behind many other European countries, with only one commercial project fully up and running — EnBW’s Baltic 1.

But its position as a European also-ran is about to change. Bard’s 400MW Offshore 1 is nearing commissioning, and work is due to start on half a dozen major projects this year.

At least 15 projects have stand a good chance of being completed by 2015, according to experts, including Windreich’s 400MW Global Tech 1 and Dong Energy’s 320MW Borkum Riffgrund 1 should be finished by 2015.

With one or two exceptions, the first wave of projects will use German turbines (Siemens is in the driving seat, followed by REpower) or foreign turbines made in Germany (Areva).

For Berlin, the stakes are high. Offshore wind is meant to be the linchpin of Germany’s energy transition. Most sources agree that the country will miss its 10GW target for 2020, without devastating repercussions. Falling well short of its 25GW target for 2030, however, would force a rethink on energy strategy.

Much of the political case for offshore wind hinges largely on the industrial regeneration of economically depressed coastal areas.

Bremerhaven, with a population of 115,000 — down from its 1980s peak of 150,000 when it was used as a US military supply harbour — has attracted manufacturers such as REpower, Areva and WeserWind on the back of the offshore programme.

Still, a wave of pessimism that was not there before the TenneT debacle has hit the local industry, with the competitiveness of the UK market seen as the biggest source of concern.

“Things seem to be easier there,” says Uwe Gierer, a Germany-based sales director for Alstom Grid. “Their learning curve has been much steeper, maybe because of their history in offshore oil and gas.

“Among our customers who could either invest in Germany or the UK, we see they will probably decide against Germany.”

But Raphael Görner, head of offshore grid sales at ABB, believes the UK has its own problems. “When you talk to German customers, they envy the UK,” he says, “and it’s the opposite when you talk to UK customers.”

North Sea problems unlikely to be repeated in Baltic

The grid problems plaguing developers in the German North Sea are unlikely to be repeated in the Baltic Sea, if for no other reason than Baltic wind farms will be linked to shore via alternating-current (AC) connections.

Although Berlin has moved to alleviate the main financial hurdles for TenneT, the transmission system operator (TSO) still faces delays due to component shortages among the subcontractors building the high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) infrastructure.

To flow electricity over long distances, HVDC can save money by reducing transmission losses. But projects in the Baltic Sea are closer to shore, making AC a better option, according to Lorenz Müller, head of offshore projects at 50Hertz, the TSO in charge of overseeing transmission in the Baltic.

“There’s a distance — roughly 80-120km out to sea — where it’s a bit of a grey zone, and you can make a case for HVDC or AC. Cost is one factor, but the other key one is availability,” Müller says, noting that there are far more manufacturers of AC than HVDC cables, at least for now.

Although the Baltic Sea’s contribution to Germany’s offshore wind programme will be dwarfed by the North Sea, it already has an early lead in the form of EnBW’s 48MW Baltic 1 project, with the follow-on 288MW Baltic 2 entering construction this year. Other big projects include Iberdrola’s 400MW Wikinger, which may be among the first to use Gamesa’s new G11X offshore machine when it enters construction in about 2015.