Wind power already is big business
When the telephone rings in this Dutchman's car, chances are that it is a windmill calling. A windmill? "It's telling
me there's a problem, maybe it has stopped," said Herre van der Meulen, a technician at Dutch utility Nuon. He
searches through his laptop, checks the disturbance and sends a telephone signal back to the computer aboard the
windmill. Moments later, the blades are spinning again, yielding electricity. "Usually I can fix most problems from a
distance," he said.
That he can do his job from afar is a good thing -- soon technicians might have little choice. Across wind-swept Northern Europe, hundreds of high-powered turbines are now being planned or are already under construction offshore, beyond the easy reach of engineers. "Going offshore is the new trend, and it's huge," said Bruce Douglas of the European Wind Energy Association, an industry group based in Brussels, Belgium. "The demonstration projects out at sea have been a success. Now people are going for full-scale marine windparks. Some are close to land, some are so far you can't see them."
In the business, the talk is of a veritable rush offshore. Power companies are staking out suitable tracts of
sandbanks, reefs and shallow open waters from the shores of Ireland to the Baltic Sea. They are joining with
traditional offshore oil and gas companies, including giants that have the capability to rig up the 100-ton towers at
Engineers say that wind parks at sea have two main advantages: The wind blows harder and more steadily than on land, and there are no residents protesting against wind parks marring the landscape. On the Dutch coast near Lelystad, 28 windmills stand in a perfect line-up near the shore, anchored in about 20 feet of water. The swoosh of the wind going over the blades is barely audible, drowned out by the squawking of sea gulls.
"It's new, it's clean, it's high tech," said Henk Kouwenhoven, a Nuon manager who watched the towers go up in 1996. "The offshore potential is enormous. Here we never run out of wind. It blows 90 % of the time. The main issue is making it cost-efficient."
Wind power already is big business. Europe's wind-driven energy industry has been growing at 40 % a year.
With a capacity of more than 20,000 MW installed on land, it now represents three-fourths of the world's total wind-power output. Europe hopes to raise this to 60,000 MW in the next six years. Much of that growth is expected to come from sea-based turbines.
"It's going so fast now because there is a race to go offshore with manufacturers and utilities competing for the jobs," said Corin Millais of the European Wind Energy Association. "Companies are now talking of wind fields, like oil reserves or coal reserves, waiting to be tapped. The beauty of it is that it is inexhaustible."
In Denmark, a North Sea wind farm, which began operation in mid-November, is designed to produce 160 MW of
electricity a year, enough to power 150,000 homes, says Elsam, Denmark's biggest utility. The 80 Danish windmills
rise 363 feet above the sea's surface covering 8 square miles of water about 9 miles from Blavandshuk, a village near
the town of Esbjerg.
Denmark already uses wind to produce 18 % of its electricity, which is the world's highest per capita consumption. Wind is providing an estimated 28 mm Europeans with electricity, Millais said, about half of them in Germany, which is the world's largest producer. The German Wind Energy Association says Germany has 12,800 land windmills in operation producing 10,650 MWh annually.
The European Union has been pushing to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, which are widely thought to contribute
to global warming. It wants 22 % of its electricity -- and 12 % of all energy -- to come from renewable sources by
2010 to meet its commitment under the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases. In the United States wind energy has
stalled at about one-fifth of Europe's capacity.
In Europe, wind projects have been encouraged with incentives such as tax credits and guaranteed rates, and the emphasis is now shifting offshore. This year, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and The Netherlands have all earmarked large offshore wind generator sites and issued licenses. Some of the projects are scheduled to be ready next year.
The new endeavours aren't without problems or critics. Environmental groups are divided. Many defend the wind
turbines as a renewable source of pollution-free energy. Others fear the offshore turbines will disturb fishing and
spawning grounds and endanger flocks of birds that migrate at night.
In Britain and Norway, the military has objected to some designated coastal sites. It says that wind parks can produce false radar echoes and disturb telecommunications.
There are other hurdles as well. Offshore turbines might be more productive, but building costs are 50 % higher than
on land and maintenance is difficult in a region where winters bring Atlantic gales. "When waves are up and your boat
sways back and forth, it's unsafe to try and get onto the landing platform," said van der Meulen, the technician who
monitors about 200 windmills scattered over a large area, including some at sea. "You can do maintenance work really
only in the summer."
Then there is the issue of price. Industry spokesmen contend that the price of wind-driven energy is already close to being competitive with other sources. They argue that traditional fossil fuels and nuclear energy get enormous hidden or indirect subsidies to the tune of billions of dollars a year. For example, in some European countries, governments pay for the insurance of nuclear power plants.
Although few people expect wind to become more important than traditional power sources, the growth of wind-powered
turbines is likely to continue. The British government has designated 12 offshore turbine sites. Energy Minister
Brian Wilson said studies had shown there is enough wind to provide electricity for the whole country. He said he
expected the global market for offshore energy to be worth $ 12 bn by 2007. Most of that, he said, will be in
"I don't see anything stopping offshore electricity now," said Kouwenhoven, of Nuon, which has teamed up with Shell in a joint venture. "Shell knows the offshore business, we know the wind business. It's just a matter of moving ahead."