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Living Planet

Windy Energy in the Sea

Germany is the world’s leading producer of wind power. But as land sites for wind parks become increasingly scarce, the future of the country’s wind industry lies on the open sea.

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Wind power is already a huge success on land in Schleswig-Holstein.

In the northern German region of Schleswig-Holstein, you can’t miss them: the wind turbines sprinkled along the landscape are as prominent as the cattle grazing on the grass.

But can these giant modern windmills be placed in the middle of the ocean? The residents of North Frisia are willing to try. For them, as well as many others living in the Schleswig-Holstein area, much of their livelihood depends on the presence of the wind turbines generating energy from the constant breeze coming off the North Sea.

Klaus Rave, vice-president of the European Wind Energy Association, says the region’s communities had a vision 15 years ago that they could produce 25 percent of their electricity through wind energy by 2010. And they succeeded.

“We promoted discussions and expert reports, and we had the courage to openly say we were considering this,” Rave says. “We were able to achieve our goal in 2002 and we’re continuing to work with this in mind and concentrating on future possibilities.”

A people’s project

But the space on land is limited. So the local residents designed and financed Project Butendiek, an offshore wind park some 20 miles off the coast in the North Sea. It will cost a total of 400 million euro ($475 million) to anchor the planned eighty wind turbines to the ocean floor.

“Our experiences led us to say, if wind parks have been so successful inland, why don’t we build them in the sea,” says Rave. But they didn’t want to leave this undertaking to a large corporation, he adds. “We wanted to do it ourselves, with our own capabilities and know-how.”

Offshore Windenergie Meer Blåvandshuk in Dänemark

Offshore wind power is already successful in Denmark.

The citizens of North Frisia strongly advocate the use of clean energy. But they also believe that with over 15 years of experience with wind power, they can make the offshore park work.

“Wind parks have been very successful in North Frisia, so that creates an acceptance for the economic aspects of the offshore park,” says Hans Feddersen, sales manager for Project Butendiek. He says 8,500 North Frisians have decided to finance the project -- and not just for environmental reasons.

“Of course, there are also opponents, but the project sounds a lot better when you tie the whirring of the wind with your wallet,” Feddersen says. The people in the region would rather grab this opportunity for investment rather than not be actively involved.

Opposition remains

There is, however, much controversy surrounding the building of offshore wind parks. For one, many potential investors still see the project as a financial risk. Also, contractors have to gain permission to prohibit shipping in the wind park area. And ironically, environmentalists are posing some of the staunchest opposition to Project Butendiek.

Luftaufnahme von Sylt

An aerial view of Sylt in the North Sea.

The offshore wind park, which aims to get going in 2005, still needs approval to run a cable through a national park and over the island of Sylt (photo). And if this fails, due to complaints from nature organizations, the project won’t work.

Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin wants to increase Germany’s power generation from renewable energy sources from 4.5 percent to 12.5 percent by 2010. But the country’s sluggish economy is leading many to question the value of wind energy versus the costs.

A lot rides on the success of Project Butendiek. If it fails, it’s difficult to imagine that other offshore wind parks in Germany will be built -- and it could throw the future of wind energy into jeopardy.

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