A Free-Market Energy Blog

Germany’s Offshore Wind: Wasted Resources, Environmental Blight

By Edgar Gaertner -- December 1, 2010

Thousands of bureaucrats are at another cushy climate confab–this time in Cancun–while Senators Bingaman, Brownback and Reid are contemplating how to ram a federal renewable energy quota through a lame-duck session. Their prospects are not good, which should give them more time to consider the experiences of Europe and windpower. The results of this experiment in energy coercion are humbling.

Germany, specifically, is in the throes of a windpower boondoggle that should be heard the world over. The general lesson is that energy forcing brings with it technological risk that must be factored into the public policy equation.

A North Sea Boondoggle

Barely two months after the inauguration ceremony for Germany’s first pilot offshore wind farm, “Alpha Ventus” in the North Sea, all six of the newly installed wind turbines were completely idle, due to gearbox damage. Two turbines must be replaced entirely; the other four repaired.

Friends of the project, especially Germany’s environment minister, Norbert Roettgen, talked of “teething problems.” The problem is far more serious than that, for wind turbines in the high seas are extremely expensive for power consumers, even when they run smoothly. When they don’t, the problem intensifies. Germany could face blackouts – a new dark age.

The Alpha Ventus failures created intense pressure for Areva Multibrid, a subsidiary of the semipublic French nuclear power company Areva. Every “standstill day,” with the expensive towering turbines standing idle and not generating a single kilowatt hour of electricity, causes lost revenue.

Environmental economist and meteorologist Thomas Heinzow of the University of Hamburg estimated the operator’s revenue shortfall at almost $6,500 (€5,000) per turbine per standstill day. Instilling additional consternation within Areva was the certainly not unreasonable fear that already skittish investors could get cold feet, and wander off in search of less risky ventures.

Actually, Areva, Areva Multibrid and the construction engineers can consider themselves lucky that the North Sea was relatively calm, thanks to the summer heat wave. Installing turbines and blades is done via jack-up platforms, a tricky business under the best circumstances. With anything above Beaufort Wind Force 3 (an 8–10 mph “gentle breeze”), the work becomes downright risky.

The six Areva Multibrid wind turbines stand 280 feet (85 meters) above the waves at the gearbox and turbine hub. Their heavy blades are 380-feet (116-meters) in diameter. Each turbine weighs 1,000 metric tons (2.2 million pounds), including the tripod base, which rises up from the sea floor 100 feet (30 meters) beneath the surface of these notoriously rough and frigid North Sea waters.

Imagine trying to disassemble and then rebuild these monsters in anything other than calm seas.

The good news is that “Alpha Ventus” also includes six even bigger wind turbines, supplied by the formerly German company REpower, which now belongs to India’s Suzlon Corporation. These turbines have thus far been running faultlessly. However, there are enough other issues associated with operating offshore turbines to send additional shivers up the spine.

High Costs Remain

Monster turbines rated at 5 megawatt maximum power generation impose high costs even when – perhaps especially when – they are running full blast. Because each turbine costs $5,200 (€4,000) per kilowatt in upfront investment, Euro legislators have decreed that turbine operators must be rewarded with 20 cents in incentives for every kWh generated on the high seas.

Therefore, Europe’s energy consumers must pay 20 cents per kWh generated, plus an additional 5 cents per kWh for transmission costs. They must pay this regardless of whether they need the electricity at the moment, and despite the fact that a kWh of wind electricity is worth less than 3 cents on the Leipzig Power Exchange, due to the intermittent and highly variable nature of wind.

Other Problems

Even crazier, when high winds generate huge quantities of electricity, power consumption is low, the Power Exchanges must then sell the electricity at a loss, to persuade purchasers to buy the excess electricity.

At the moment, the most common purchasers are Austrian pumped storage operators, who use wind turbine power to pump water into mountain lakes, so they can later use the water to run hydroelectric generators during peak demand periods – and sell that power at premium prices.

Heinzow calculates that water equivalent to Lake Constance (13 cubic miles or 55 cubic kilometers) must be pumped 1,165 feet (350 meters) high, just to buffer the supply-demand discontinuity caused by the thousands of wind turbines that are already planned for the North and Baltic Seas. There are only two alternatives to this.

Firming Problems

One is gas turbines, to function as backup generators that can supply power whenever winds are not blowing at usable speeds. But unless shale gas development proceeds apace, this would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas supplies. It would also result in inefficient gas use and higher carbon emissions, as generators ramp up and down every time wind turbine output changes.

The other is nuclear power plants. High performance nuclear plants can adjust their electricity output to replace the highly variable output from wind farms, but that reduces efficiency and causes irregular burn-up of fuel rods. This is a serious concern, because high efficiency is the primary way nuclear plants make up for their high capital costs. A bigger concern is that the German government has still not reversed its decision to phase out all nuclear power plants.

Did I Mention Transmission?

However, the lack of suitable or sufficient backup power generation may still be a relatively small problem. Billion-dollar investments in transmission lines are needed to bring expensive wind power from offshore sites north of Germany to big industrial consumers hundreds of miles away in the south. But resistance to new high voltage lines in urban and recreation areas is high and rising.

A Lower Saxony law already prescribes the use of ground cables in certain areas. But those are ten times more expensive than above-ground lines – and less reliable, due to constant assault by water, salt and subterranean animal life.

A Darker Germany?

The bottom line: Germans will have to prepare for significantly higher electricity tariffs – and more frequent blackouts.

“If all German wind power projects are realized as planned, the country will incur economic losses well over 100 billion Euros by 2030,” Heinzow says. “The only word that describes this ‘world improvement’ strategy is suicidal.”

Does America really want to go down this path?


Edgar Gaertner is an independent editor and consultant on risk evaluation and sustainability issues, former editor-in-chief for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Germany), and author of Eco-Nihilism: A Critique of Political Ecology.

Gaertner studied biology and political science at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University of Frankfurt, Germany and Mediterranean ecology in Marseilles, France. He has served as a writer and editor for the French magazine Science & Vie, an environmental newsletter and the German branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He left the WWF when climate policy began to replace traditional conservation requests as its priority, and since then has served as an independent editor and consultant on risk evaluation and sustainability issues.


  1. Donna Laframboise  

    Oh, dear. Thanks so much for this piece.

    Mr Gaertner, how might I acquire an English-language copy of Eco-Nihilism?

    Donna AT NOconsensus.org


  2. Kent Hawkins  

    According a study just a few years ago by the German Energy Agency, dena, Germany was to have over 5,000 MW of offshore wind implementations by 2010. By 2009 it had less than 50 MW installed. So what has happened to delay this initiative? There are a couple of plausible reasons: (1) Germany already has more wind than it can handle (an indication is the widespread practice of wind curtailment and the occurrence of blackouts due to wind, and (2) the very real problems with offshore wind installations.

    Denmark stopped offshore implementations after 2003, and the new wind energy radicals, the UK, has become the leader in offshore wind at a modest 900 MW. Do Germany and Denmark know something that we have yet to learn?

    However, Germany and Denmark are moving again with offshore wind. What has happened? Questionable overall EU energy policies aside, here is an explanation for consideration. They both have created large industries based on the manufacture (and export) of onshore wind turbines. Having saturated their domestic onshore markets, these industries are very dependent upon exports, where they face emerging competition from the giants of China, India and the US. Germany and Denmark likely see an opportunity to extend the life of their threatened industries by maintaining “leadership” in offshore, so they must keep up the “shop window” front for promotion purposes, which is what they are now doing.


  3. Jon Boone  

    Yes, Kent. Quite right. Denmark especially must pretend it is interested in offshore wind, since it’s become political suicide to put anymore huge wind machines onshore in that tiny country. Danish wind manufacturers like Vestas and Siemens are also looking for foreign markets to install onshore wind, and have placed Uncle Sugar squarely in their crosshairs. They’re also heavily involved with the Chinese, where much of their manufacturing facilities will eventually move, in large part to secure cheap labor and rare earth minerals unavailable elsewhere.


  4. uvdiv  

    A correction —

    ” Because each turbine costs $5,200 (€4,000) per kilowatt-hour in upfront investment…”

    Clearly this should be “per kilowatt” capital cost, not “kilowatt-hour”.

    [I will correct–thanks]


  5. KHawkins  

    Further to Jon Boone’s comment, remember any move of manufacturing to China moves the jobs too. The end result is the same for the domestic Danish industy and workers. So much for any long term employment.

    The other factor in limiting long term employment is the eventual general realization of the unfeasibility of wind plants, which are heavily financed by bank loans. Banks (and the US government and taxpayers) look out. I doubt the Chinese will over-extend themselves and suffer the same fate.


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  8. Snorbert Zangox  

    Germany is probably in the “throes” of a windpower boondoggle.


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  11. Leo Smith MA Electrical Sciences, Cambridge  

    Good article: You have most of it down pat.

    Note also that every extra expensive ‘bolt on ‘the wind lobby comes up with to make wind work better, could also make nuclear work much better, at much less cost.

    Note also that old hydro and all nuclear do not get subsidies although they are the cleanest and lowest carbon generators of all.

    The top ten lowest carbon per MWh European countries ALL use extensive hydro or nuclear (or both, or geothermal in Iceland) power generation. Germany and Denmark are nowhere near them.

    (Data from http://carma.org/)

    A further point: Because the average power from wind is about 30% of the peak power, all transmission lines, turbines and indeed storage equipment if it’s there, have to be sized at three times the typical output. This is incredibly wasteful of scarce materials like copper. And expensive. Likewise the generally remote locations of the ‘farms’ (sic!: more factories) from the demand base demands longer and especially in offshore far more expensive transmission lines than would be the case with conventional or nuclear power sited close to where its needed.


  12. Keith at HastingsUK  

    As well as all the above noted problems, there are looming problems with electricity grid stability, as inputs get more variable/ intermittent. just can’t keep it all at the correct voltage and frequency. This is not a trivial problem.
    Incidentally, I have read that wind turbines are often rotated by grid electricity during extended still times, to prevent strain on blades and hub, and also may be spun up to correct speeds preparatory to inputting to the grid. can’t vouch for this tho’


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  17. Edgar L. Gärtner  

    @Donna: There were some attempts to translate my book “Eco-Nihilism into English, but finally nobody really started to do so, I’m preparing now a completely revised edition and I hope that somebody will translate ist.


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