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Wind and hot air

August 1, 2011

Offshore wind parks are often hailed as the future of renewable energy in Germany. But they actually lag far behind their terrestrial counterparts. Proponents say nuclear politics may have stunted investment in them.

Baltic 1
Berlin is looking to boost offshore wind park constructionImage: picture-alliance/ZB

With rotor blades measuring up to 60 meters turning slowly on masts that tower formidably over the water's surface, offshore wind parks have become a symbol of the push for renewable energies in Germany.

By 2030, such wind parks are expected to deliver more electricity than the 17 nuclear plants currently operating across the country combined.

Germany is one of the world's leaders in producing and using electricity generated by wind energy. Together with Spain, it produces more than half of all Europe's wind power.

But Germany's goals for offshore wind power are far from realized. The Baltic Sea currently has just one operational commercial wind park, which is called Baltic 1. Two more – BARD 1 and Borkum West 2 - are being built in the North Sea, where so far only one test park named "Alpha Ventus" is in operation.

According to Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association, investors have been scared away by government floundering on energy policy.

Chancellor Merkel
Chancellor Angela Merkel's nuclear politics may have stunted wind park investmentImage: dapd

Chancellor Angela Merkel won the 2009 election on promises to extend the nation's use of nuclear power, but earlier this year she reversed her stance to favor a rapid nuclear phase-out in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster.

Albers complains that Berlin's subsequent promise to promote renewable energy was followed by a destructive debate about "restrictive instruments" – proposals that would have accelerated plans to cut feed-in tariffs paid to renewable energy producers. These deep cuts have, however, since been diluted.

Focus on wind power

Policymakers are now looking to encourage the creation of further wind parks with a new law that makes it easier for developers to obtain building permits. They've also promised 5 billion euros in cheap loans to help fund the construction of 26 wind parks that have already met planning requirements.

For Chancellor Merkel, wind power plays a key role in the country's transition to renewable energies. "The focal point for future construction should be wind energy on land and at sea," she said in her June 9th policy address to parliament.

Wind parks at sea are widely seen as having the advantage of circumventing societal conflicts, but land-based facilities are considerably less expensive.

Wind turbines
Wind turbines on land are unpopular with many citizens and conservationistsImage: AP

In 2010, nearly 22,000 modern wind turbines almost exclusively based on land generated 6 percent of Germany's electricity. Despite a public emphasis on the planned offshore wind parks in the Baltic and North seas, turbines are sprouting from the ground at a much more rapid pace.

Meanwhile dissent is growing amongst citizen groups who dislike the presence of turbines on their doorsteps. The shadows cast by rotor blades, persistent noise and blinking airline warning lights are all on their list of complaints.

Turbines over the treetops

Improved technology means that wind turbines can now be perched on masts up to 200 meters in height, which allows them to be placed above forests.

One such plan would build wind turbines in Wandlitz, a leafy borough outside Berlin on the edge of the Liepnitz forest.

Jana Radant, the chairwoman of a local citizen's group dedicated to keeping wind turbines out of the area, says the Liepnitz forest is home to a large number of old beech trees, which account for only four percent of all German forest.

"Our group is not against wind turbines in and of themselves," Radant said. "We're against wind turbines in forests which are worth protecting."

But protecting trees isn't the only concern opponents of wind turbines in forests cite. In many areas of Germany, conservationists fear that changed wind patterns above the treetops could disrupt the flight paths and nesting places of birds and bats. The effects of those many large blades chopping through the air have yet to be studied.

The construction of a single wind turbine requires up to one hectare of land, according to the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

Critics say offshore wind parks could harm marine lifeImage: picture-alliance/ Bundespolizeiamt See

Sound barrier for harbor porpoises

Many politicians like offshore wind parks because they are generally located out of sight from coastal homes, which means they are less likely to face opposition from disgruntled residents. But they still face plenty of opposition from environmentalists.

Conservationists fear the noise from the construction of Borkum West 2 wind park, for example, could damage the hearing of the North Sea's native harbor porpoises. The park's builders, Trianel, are therefore testing inflatable sound barriers. They come in the form of underwater rings laid 60 to 70 meters around a post to be rammed into the ground. The rings emit bubbles which rise to the surface to diffuse and dampen sound, according to the company.

When the Baltic 1 wind park was opened on the Baltic Sea in May, Chancellor Merkel appealed to critics to cooperate.

"If we want to reach the age of renewable energies soon, then we all need to be prepared to make a contribution," she said.

Author: Bernd Grässler (gps)
Editor: Sam Edmonds