Germany, Denmark’s Renewable Energy Transition Empowering Offshore Wind (Part of Largest Infrastructure Investment Program in Europe Since World War II)

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Activity in Europe’s offshore wind sector continues to increase, as European government and industry continue to follow through on plans to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Offshore wind installations are a big part of Germany’s groundbreaking plans to phase out nuclear power, while world wind energy leader Denmark intends to increase its already high percentage of wind power by tapping more offshore wind energy.

Wind turbine costs have been declining and their energy conversion efficiency increasing while fossil fuel costs have been rising. Nonetheless, high up-front capital costs, the challenges of deploying and maintaining wind turbines in harsh offshore environments and the cost, time and difficulties of constructing and maintaining offshore-to-grid connections has lead to criticism and questioning of Germany and other European countries’ historic and ambitious offshore wind energy targets.

Stronger and more consistent than winds on-shore, offshore winds hold tremendous energy potential. Oil and gas companies have been operating offshore in environmentally sensitive, harsh conditions for decades now, and government offshore wind power and industry proponents believe the challenges can and will be surmounted, however.

Germany & Denmark: Blazing the Offshore Wind Power Trail

Germany’s plan to phase out all 17 of its nuclear power plants — which have met around 20% of its electrical power needs — and shift to renewable energy by 2022 is the largest infrastructure investment program in Europe since WW-II and the Marshall Plan, Bloomberg News reported recently. The Merkel government’s energy plan calls for building offshore wind farms covering an area six times the size of New York City and building power lines “that could stretch from London to Baghdad,” according to the report.

Germany’s offshore wind and renewable energy drive is stimulating investment and sales across a wide range of alternative energy providers, including Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the largest maker of wind turbines, while also prompting radical restructurings at utilities, such as Germany’s RWE AG (RWE) and EON AG.

With wind energy supplying about 1/5 of its electricity, Denmark is the world leader when it comes to wind power’s contribution to national electricity demand, but the Danish government sees even greater gains ahead, particularly with regard to offshore wind.

Danish legislators on Thursday approved construction of two offshore wind farms with a total rated capacity of 1,000 MW, Reuters reported. Danish Minister for Climate, Energy and Building Martin Lidegaard announced that a 400 MW wind farm will be built at Horns Rev in the North Sea off the west coast of Jutland, while a second, 600 MW wind farm will be built at Kriegers Flak in the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Sweden.

Management at Denmark’s Dong Energy said the pioneering offshore wind energy provider will invest 10 billion kroner ($1.8 billion) a year in offshore wind projects “to offset a ‘challenging’ environment for gas plants as it ceases to build new power facilities,” according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report.

The sharply rising costs of fossil fuels and declining profitability of even the most efficient combined-cycle natural gas turbine plants and the drive to cut CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions is leading Dong and other major European power utilities to make radical, fundamental shifts in their business strategies.

Dong management intends to fund its offshore wind and other renewable energy investments– which also include converting coal-fired power plants to biomass–using retained earnings and selling shares in existing projects, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. Dong recently agreed to sell a 50% stake in German wind power park to Kirkbi A/S, the Lego Group’s parent company.

Belgium: Home to World’s Most Powerful Wind Turbine

German energy company RWE Innogy and partners are installing the world’s most powerful wind turbine in waters about 30 kilometers (~18 miles) off the Belgian coast. With a rated capacity of 6.15 MW, the offshore wind turbine is expected to generate enough clean, renewable electrical power to meet the needs of some 6,000 people a year.

As one of an array of 30 such offshore wind turbines comprising the 48-turbine Thornton Bank wind farm, it will contribute to an anticipated rated maximum of 325 MW of electrical power, enough electricity to meet the needs of some 600,000 people a year.

Manufactured by REpower Systems, the wind turbine’s nacelle is the size of a two-family house, the rotor has a radius of more than 400 feet and it sweeps a surface area equivalent to two football fields, according to an RWE press release. Project plans call for 30 of these turbines to be installed at the Thornton Bank wind farm site by September, with the final 18 to be installed in 2013. A 40-km (~24 mile) cable will connect the wind farm to to Belgium’s grid.

RWE Innogy owns 26.7% of the Thornton Bank project, the world’s largest project-funded offshore wind farm, according to the company. Eight European banks, including the European Investment Bank and the German and Danish Export Credit Agency, are providing 900 million euros worth of financing to develop Thornton Bank, which has been generating renewable power since 2009. A total 1.3 billion euros is being invested in the project.

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