Winds of change

The boom and bust of Germany’s offshore wind farms

GERMANY-THEME-GREEN-INNOVATIONS
Blowing hot and cold. Source: AFP

Germany’s island of Heligoland, a once teeming resort, has long experienced a decline in tourist business. Holidaymakers today seek more exotic thrills than spending a few days on a rainy dot in the North Sea, and those visitors who do still come tend toward day trips rather than longer stays.

But that doesn’t bother the Atoll Ocean Resort, the archipelago’s only spa hotel. It’s booked up solidly. Just not with tourists. “For the next ten years, the hotel is fully leased to the wind farm operator Wind MW,” it says on its website. Instead of tourists, technicians sleep there.

Jörg Singer looks out of his town hall window at the hotel. “We needed an impulse from outside,” Heligoland’s mayor says, “and we focused on the offshore wind-power sector.” With some success. Wind MW and utilities EON and Innogy built maintenance hangars on the island to service the vast wind farms that lie offshore.

Germany’s pivot towards renewable energy triggered a boom in offshore wind power, making Heligoland and several other structurally weak regions along the North Sea rich. While just a few years ago the island was a financial burden for the state of Schleswig-Holstein, it now pumps tens of millions of euros in taxes into state coffers.

According to the German Wind Energy Association, 1,169 wind turbines generated 5.4 gigawatts of electricity in the North and Baltic Seas in the first half of this year. An additional 2 gigawatts is planned by 2025, and there is much room for expansion: Wind power currently accounts for just 2.9 percent of total electricity production in Germany.

Ill winds

But not all coastal communities have been able to ride the wave. Bremerhaven, a down-at-heel port city of 120,000 people on the coast south of Heligoland, wanted to profit from the boom. It spent millions developing a plan to build an additional port terminal so that wind-turbine manufacturers could transport their components from there to the farms. However, the site lay on a nature reserve and lobbying by environmental groups put an end to the project.

In a double blow, the offshore wind-turbine manufacturer Adwen announced it was ending production in the city and laying off hundreds of employees. Instead, Adwen’s parent, the Spanish wind-power company Gamesa, launched a joint venture with Siemens and shifted production to a new €200 million (€231 million) facility in Cuxhaven, 30 km along the coast, creating 850 jobs. The state of Lower Saxony and the European Union spent around €250 million luring Siemens. Bremerhaven Mayor Melf Grantz, whose city already suffers from high unemployment, said he “expected more” from the offshore industry.

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The city is not the only loser. In the fishing port of Büsum across the mouth of the Elbe from Cuxhaven, Andreas Thaden is unloading his catch: about 900kg (almost 2,000 lbs) of crabs, for which he gets €3.30 per kilogram. But the night before, the 29-year-old faced yet another frustratingly slow journey into the harbor in his fishing trawler “Bleibtreu.” The reason — he had to navigate around the hundreds of windmills offshore from Büsum. He and other fishermen are not allowed to fish within 500 meters of the farms for safety reasons. They claim the operators have invaded and blocked their fishing grounds.

With the North Sea overfished, more and more fishermen are being forced out of their living. The 70 or so left in Büsum say the wind farms make things worse. In the winter, fishermen are not allowed to even drive through the wind farms, in summer they are often closed for repairs or bad weather. Their spokesman Dieter Voss, Mr. Thaden’s 74-year-old grandfather, says that things are different further north in Denmark. There, the local fishing association has agreed with wind farm operator Ørsted that they can fish up to 100m from the turbines. Mr. Voss wants at least the same deal. “If we don’t get to keep sailing through the wind farms,” he said, “we will have lost completely.”

Operators such as Innogy and EON argue they are bound by regulations. And they’re right: the 500m limit is set by the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency. “Unlike the authorities in Denmark, we consider a zone of 500 meters to be necessary for the safety of the facilities and shipping traffic,” says the agency’s Nico Nolte. Towed nets could damage foundations and power cables on the seabed, but the agency is looking at the issue, he adds.

The irony is that fish stocks are growing in the safety zones and rare birds are flocking to the farms to feed. The wind farm operators unwittingly created protected marine areas, and now want to use them to enforce the safety zones. EON even wants to get the Federal Environment Agency involved.

Blown away

Back in Heligoland, everyone seems happy. A stallholder selling duty-free goods, one of the island’s biggest attractions, says the wind industry has not really affected the island’s tourist industry. The farms are so far out in the sea that they cannot be seen, and the physical impact is low: new maintenance hangars and control centers were built on wasteland. The state government is also satisfied. Before the offshore boom, Heligoland’s 1,500 residents received up to €5 million per year in subsidies; now they are getting around €40 million.

The boom is unlikely to end any time soon. The utility EnBW is building the next wind farm northwest of Helgoland, and it has ordered 87 wind turbines from Siemens. That creates more work in Cuxhaven. “According to my calculations, Siemens Gamesa has orders for 900 turbines,” says Cuxhaven mayor Ulrich Getsch.

While that’s good news for Cuxhaven, it has left Bremerhaven hanging in the wind. But its mayor, Mr. Grantz, hasn’t given up hope. He is relying on the wind-power lobby to win an extension to the government cap on offshore wind power, from 15 gigawatts by 2030 to 20 gigawatts.

He thinks that then the boom will have to come to his city.

Stefan Reccius is a trainee journalist at Handelsblatt.

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