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A new dark age for Germany?

By Edgar L. Gaertner
web posted December 6, 2010

Thousands of bureaucrats are preparing for another cushy climate confab in Cancun – while Senators Bingaman, Brownback and Reid are contemplating how to ram renewable energy standards through a lame-duck session. If they're wise, American voters and congressmen will pay extra careful attention to the awful dilemma of German climate and energy policy, as exemplified by recent events, and make sure their country doesn't make the same "green" mistakes that Germany did.

Barely two months after the inauguration ceremony for Germany's first pilot offshore wind farm, "Alpha Ventus" in the North Sea, all six of the newly installed wind turbines were completely idle, due to gearbox damage. Two turbines must be replaced entirely; the other four repaired.

Friends of the project, especially Germany's environment minister, Norbert Roettgen, talked of "teething problems." The problem is far more serious than that, for wind turbines in the high seas are extremely expensive for power consumers, even when they run smoothly. When they don't, the problem intensifies. Germany could face blackouts – a new dark age.

The Alpha Ventus failures created intense pressure for Areva Multibrid, a subsidiary of the semipublic French nuclear power company Areva. Every "standstill day," with the expensive towering turbines standing idle and not generating a single kilowatt hour of electricity, causes lost revenue.

Environmental economist and meteorologist Thomas Heinzow of the University of Hamburg estimated the operator's revenue shortfall at almost $6,500 (€5,000) per turbine per standstill day. Instilling additional consternation within Areva was the certainly not unreasonable fear that already skittish investors could get cold feet, and wander off in search of less risky ventures.

Actually, Areva, Areva Multibrid and the construction engineers can consider themselves lucky that the North Sea was relatively calm, thanks to the summer heat wave. Installing turbines and blades is done via jack-up platforms, a tricky business under the best circumstances. With anything above Beaufort Wind Force 3 (an 8-10 mph "gentle breeze"), the work becomes downright risky.

The six Areva Multibrid wind turbines stand 280 feet (85 meters) above the waves at the gearbox and turbine hub. Their heavy blades are 380-feet (116-meters) in diameter. Each turbine weighs 1,000 metric tons (2.2 million pounds), including the tripod base, which rises up from the sea floor 100 feet (30 meters) beneath the surface of these notoriously rough and frigid North Sea waters.

Imagine trying to disassemble and then rebuild these monsters in anything other than calm seas.

Thankfully, "Alpha Ventus" also includes six even bigger wind turbines, supplied by the formerly German company REpower, which now belongs to India's Suzlon Corporation. These turbines have thus far been running faultlessly. However, there are enough other issues associated with operating offshore turbines to send additional shivers up the spine.

Monster turbines rated at 5 megawatt maximum power generation impose high costs even when – perhaps especially when – they are running full blast. Because each turbine costs $5,200 (€4,000) per kilowatt-hour in upfront investment, Euro legislators have decreed that turbine operators must be rewarded with 20 cents in incentives for every kWh generated on the high seas.

Therefore, Europe's energy consumers must pay 20 cents per kWh generated, plus an additional 5 cents per kWh for transmission costs. They must pay this regardless of whether they need the electricity at the moment, and despite the fact that a kWh of wind electricity is worth less than 3 cents on the Leipzig Power Exchange, due to the intermittent and highly variable nature of wind.

Even crazier, when high winds generate huge quantities of electricity, but power consumption is low, the Power Exchanges must then sell the electricity at a loss, to persuade purchasers to buy the excess electricity. At the moment, the most common purchasers are Austrian pumped storage operators, who use wind turbine power to pump water into mountain lakes, so they can later use the water to run hydroelectric generators during peak demand periods – and sell that power at premium prices.

Heinzow calculates that water equivalent to Lake Constance (13 cubic miles or 55 cubic kilometers) must be pumped 1,165 feet (350 meters) high, just to buffer the supply-demand discontinuity caused by the thousands of wind turbines that are already planned for the North and Baltic Seas. There are only two alternatives to this.

One is gas turbines, to function as backup generators that can supply power whenever winds are not blowing at usable speeds. But unless shale gas development proceeds apace, this would increase Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies. It would also result in inefficient gas use and higher carbon emissions, as generators ramp up and down every time wind turbine output changes.

The other is nuclear power plants. High performance nuclear plants can adjust their electricity output to replace the highly variable output from wind farms, but that reduces efficiency and causes irregular burn-up of fuel rods. This is a serious concern, because high efficiency is the primary way nuclear plants make up for their high capital costs. A bigger concern is that the German government has still not reversed its decision to phase out all nuclear power plants.

However, the lack of suitable or sufficient backup power generation may still be a relatively small problem. Billion-dollar investments in transmission lines are needed to bring expensive wind power from offshore sites north of Germany to big industrial consumers hundreds of miles away in the south. But resistance to new high voltage lines in urban and recreation areas is high and rising.

A Lower Saxony law already prescribes the use of ground cables in certain areas. But those are ten times more expensive than above-ground lines – and less reliable, due to constant assault by water, salt and subterranean animal life.

The bottom line: Germans will have to prepare for significantly higher electricity tariffs – and more frequent blackouts.

"If all German wind power projects are realized as planned, the country will incur economic losses well over 100 billion Euros by 2030," Heinzow says. "The only word that describes this 'world improvement' strategy is suicidal."

Does America really want to go down this suicidal path? ESR

Edgar Gaertner is an independent editor and consultant on risk evaluation and sustainability issues, former editor-in-chief for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Germany), and author of Eco-Nihilism: A Critique of Political Ecology.




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