Nordseewerke, which produces Statue of Liberty-sized foundations for ocean wind turbines, ramped up its manufacturing capacity and head count in 2011 after Merkel declared that Germany would begin a massive project to install 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. More than two years later, Germany wind farms have been slow to appear, stymied by the difficulty of planting towers in deep ocean waters, an outmoded electrical grid and investors who are losing faith in the project. The delays hammered 110-year-old Emden-based Nordseewerke, which filed for bankruptcy before DSD Steel Group GmbH bought it in February, retaining only a third of its 750 employees.
In December, at a summit for her Christian Democratic Union in Hanover, she said that the 550 billion euro ($717 billion) effort is the most ambitious, complex and difficult project in Germany’s future.
“If Germany succeeds, it could be a role model for economies all over the world,” says Claudia Kemfert, who heads the energy unit at the DIW economic institute, a research group, in Berlin. “If it fails, it will be a disaster for Germany’s politicians, society and economy.”
Merkel’s subsidies to renewable-energy producers are fueling runaway electricity costs and posing a threat to the stagnant German economy. Consumers pay for the subsidies through a surcharge on their bills. The fee had surged 47 percent on Jan. 1 from a year earlier. In three years, it had more than doubled.
The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, said in December that it expects the economy to expand by as little as 0.4 percent in 2013 as the three-year sovereign-debt crisis continues to exact a toll on exports. German industry has been hit hard by power prices, which in 2012 were about 40 percent higher than in France and the Netherlands, according to a February report by the Cologne-based IW economic institute, a research organization.
Merkel’s expansion plan requires companies to add about 5,000 sea-based turbines by 2030 — an effort that’s been dogged by technical stumbles. To build the wind farms, ships carry steel foundations for turbines from the port of Bremerhaven to about 125 kilometers (78 miles) offshore, where cranes lower the 550-ton structures onto the seabed. They will support windmill towers taller than the Great Pyramids of Giza as part of a giant renewable-power plant in the middle of the North Sea.
Completion of the North Sea wind farm and at least four others has been delayed as crews grapple with the demands of installing equipment in seawater as deep as 40 meters (130 feet). And grid operator TenneT TSO GmbH has warned it wouldn’t be able to connect several wind farms under construction to the mainland network on time, citing problems with transformer stations. These setbacks have caused the nation’s second-biggest utility, RWE AG (RWE), and Denmark’s Dong Energy A/S to delay investments in new offshore wind farms in Germany.
It’s part of an effort to construct three north-south so- called power autobahns to ship electricity. Within a decade, Germany aims to build or upgrade some 5,700 kilometers of power lines, the distance from London to Kabul. As of August, 15 of 24 grid projects identified as key by the government were behind schedule, mainly because of public opposition to construction projects in neighborhoods.
If reactors close before the grid improvements are completed and no new fossil-fuel stations are added, Germany could suffer blackouts, Bavarian Economy Minister Martin Zeil said in February.
“We’re not yet where we want to be,” Merkel told business leaders in February in Mainz. Eager to prevent a voter backlash in September, Merkel has pledged to contain power prices. The government has increased cuts to clean-energy subsidies during the past three years, and Altmaier in January proposed freezing the related surcharge to consumers in 2014 at the current level.
He said any increase thereafter should be limited to 2.5 percent a year. If the government can control prices, Merkel said, other countries will follow Germany into renewable energy, giving the economy a chance to create a new export industry.
“It’s not just Merkel’s reputation that’s at stake here,” Eurasia Group’s Nickel says. “Germany wants to be a leader in exporting these green technologies around the world. But if the project doesn’t work at home, then no one will copy it.”
Meanwhile, Marutz of Nordseewerke is losing patience with government officials who say the wind farm mess will be fixed.
“We’re still being told that installations will pick up,” he says, “but the question is when.”
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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