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The North Sea may be a prime spot for wind parks, but Estonia is betting it can build and maintain turbines for less. The small nation is pushing ahead with ambitious plans for an offshore wind park in the Baltic Sea.
Germany and the United Kingdom can now produce electricity more cheaply with offshore wind turbines than by burning fossil fuels, according to a detailed global analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
That's the case even without government subsidies. Denmark passed the same milestone last year.
And now, Estonia thinks it can install and operate offshore turbines for even less.
Estonia is one of three small countries that sit between Russia and Western Europe on the Baltic Sea, which is not as deep or stormy as the North Sea.
"Installation of turbines and maintenance are possible when wave heights are lower than 1.5 meters (4.9 feet)," says Martin Kruus, CEO of 4Energia, a company that has already built enough onshore wind farms to power 110,000 homes. The company has 10 times as many more under construction or on the drawing board.
"In the Baltic, it's quite rare for waves to get bigger than that."
The Baltic is not as deep or stormy as the North Sea - that could make it a cheaper place to operate wind farms
Plans for an offshore wind park are taking shape despite the fact that Estonia may be the least energy import-dependent country in the European Union. Oil and gas from shale provide 85 percent of the nation's power, and there's enough rock to supply the Baltic country's 1.3 million people for a hundred years.
What's more, half of the 45,000-square-kilometer (17,000-square-mile) country is covered by forests - so there's plenty of wood to burn. Which is less than ideal for forest conservation, or climate protection.
Timo Tatar, director of energy at Estonia's Ministry of Economic Affairs, is mindful of EU goals for reducing carbon emissions and says Estonia wants to do its part to reduce the risks of climate change by making the switch to green energy.
"Obviously, oil shale is not the ultimate solution for us," he says.
Reliance on Russia
Russian gas is still widely used for heating Estonian homes. Rene Tammist, director of the Estonian Renewable Energy Association, admits that's an uncomfortable situation on cold winter nights.
"Russia has proven that it is willing to disrupt energy supplies if it doesn't achieve its political goals," he says. "That's not a very nice perspective for people who live in a harsh climate like ours."
In a bid to harness alternative energy sources, the country's largest producer of oil and gas - Eesti Energia - has erected huge wind turbines atop mounds of light brown ash waste from shale oil and gas extraction.
And now 4Energia hopes to build an offshore wind park near the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, about 225 kilometers east of Sweden and 120 kilometers south of Finland.
The plan for 150 turbines is controversial, with many of the island's 10,000 residents opposing the idea.
"It's natural that people are afraid of new things, especially places like this island where everything has been very traditional," says head of the local development department Kaidi Nommerga.
Residents fear noise and destruction of pristine views, but developers say their turbines will be so far out at sea that people will barely see them, and they definitely won't hear them.
Then there are the ecological concerns: Hiiumaa is a haven for 250 species of birds. Some are just passing through, while others spend at least part of the year living on marshes that cover about 7 percent of the island.
There are cormorants, black-headed gulls, sedge warblers, herring gulls, mute swans, coots and rare birds like the black stork and white-tailed eagle.
After extensive study, the developer's environmental consultant Hendrik Puhkim says he's convinced the park can be built without harming the birds.
"We've done aerial surveys during different seasons to get a comprehensive picture. I believe it is possible to have both - a wind park and a place for birds to rest and to eat."
By putting the turbines in a location far from observed flight paths, and by positioning the blades in a certain way, Puhkim says 4Energia can minimize the risk to birds - a claim supported by the offshore wind experience in Germany, Denmark and the UK.
Cormorants are among the species that take refuge in marshes on the island of Hiiumaa
Incentives for locals
Hiiumaa Mayor George Linkov predicts the public will eventually come around. The developer has pledged to donate a portion of its profits to community projects. Locals can also invest in the wind park, buying bonds that offer a 15 percent rate of return.
"They're going to change their minds the first time they see something in their bank accounts," Linkov says.
Which leaves just one more impediment to the start of construction: money. In that respect, Estonia is blessed twice by the European Union. The EU is expected to support the construction of innovative bases for the turbines - designed to stand up well to ice.
Additionally, if Estonia exceeds EU targets for production of green energy, it would be able to sell credits to other European countries that are not able to meet their goals.
Planners in Estonia hope the Hiiumaa wind park will be up and running by 2020.