German wind energy plans in the doldrums
Germany's green energy revolution is at risk of stalling, with energy firms warning they may shelve plans for a huge expansion of offshore wind power because of delays in connecting the turbines to the grid.
Mike Winkel, the head of green energy at the German utility E.ON, said last month that work on the power line needed to feed electricity from its North Sea wind farm Amrumbank West to the mainland was 15 months behind schedule and that the turbines would not go into operation until March 2015.
Mr Winkel described the situation as "disastrous" and said E.ON would put its planning for further wind farms on hold. He said the network operators in charge of laying the cables and building switching stations had overestimated their technical capabilities and were themselves facing delays in obtaining supplies of equipment.
Another major German utility, RWE, issued a similar warning and complained its Nordsee Ost wind farm would go online at least one year later than planned because the power connection would not be ready in time.
RWE had intended to start producing electricity from the 48-turbine wind farm next year. But TenneT, the Dutch-owned grid operator in charge of building all the power lines off the German North Sea coast, said it would not be able even to start construction of the power line until the end of this year.
Nordsee Ost is due to be completed next year. Paradoxically, RWE will initially have to resort to diesel-powered engines to keep the sensitive rotor blades and gear mechanisms turning until the power line has been completed and the turbines can become operational.
Germany may respond by trying to woo new investors.
The problems are bad news for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who stepped up her plans for a huge expansion of green-power generation last year after ditching nuclear energy in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Offshore wind farms are the backbone of her strategy. At sea, the wind blows more strongly and constantly, making the farms a potentially more reliable and productive source of renewable energy than wind turbines on land and solar power.
The aim is for 10,000 wind turbines along the German coasts of the North Sea and Baltic to be in operation by 2030, producing 25,000 megawatts of electricity or 15 per cent of Germany's total energy needs. But the actual number of turbines working now is just 27, generating only 135 megawatts.
RWE said there was no chance Germany would achieve its offshore wind power goal, and that the delays so far would deter investors from backing future projects in the North Sea and Baltic. The company said it was considering suing TenneT, which is owned by the Dutch government, for €100 million (Dh484.9m) in compensation for losses caused by the line delays.
RWE had planned to spend €1 billion per year on renewables in the coming years, with 40 to 50 per cent of that earmarked for offshore wind energy.
If the offshore expansion is off track, so too will be Mrs Merkel's plan to boost renewable energy from 17 per cent of electricity consumption now to at least 35 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.
Building wind farms at sea, in some cases up to 100km off the coast, has proved a greater technical challenge than expected. Erecting the turbines is a considerable feat in itself - ships were purpose-built for the task of transporting the rotor blades and masts and anchoring them on the seabed.
But laying the cable has proved even more arduous because it involves working at depths of up to 30 metres and building special power converter platforms. The technology and the methods are new and untried, and much of the work can be done only between May and September when the weather permits. Lengthy planning approval procedures have added to the delays.
TenneT, which is building a total of eight undersea cables, warned the German government in November that it would not be able to meet its production deadlines and was having difficulty obtaining fresh capital from investors. It demanded assistance with the planning and financing of the offshore grid.
The government has not yet decided whether to boost subsidies for offshore wind power, but it may have to.
Future funding could come from Abu Dhabi's Masdar green-energy initiative. Frank Wouters, the director of Masdar's energy division, told the Financial Times Deutschland, a German business newspaper, last month that Masdar would be very interested in investing in German offshore wind power if the yields improved. He said Masdar had not yet found a project that generated enough yield. The German offshore wind farms are located in deep water far off the coast, which made them a riskier investment than wind farms closer to shore, he said.
But unless the German government removes the bottleneck threatening its wind-power plans, Europe's largest economy will not only fall far short of its green-power plans, but may also face power shortages in the years to come.
Embarrassingly for Mrs Merkel, there is a very real prospect that the shortfalls will be made up by importing nuclear-generated power.