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Europe's $57 billion plan to put windmills in the ocean

Though questions remain about how to bring electricity to shore, Europe sees offshore wind power as a crucial component in its effort to reduce carbon emissions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2009



Paris

Wind is the fastest growing renewable energy in Europe – making up a third of new energy here, with 20 turbines added every working day in 2008, according to EU statistics.

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What the European wind energy industry now wants is to expand – offshore. Ocean winds are a stronger and more predictable form of energy than the ones on land, and the industry is pushing a $57 billion investment to allow broad-winged turbines to spin at sea.

Offshore wind is "absolutely" a significant new resource, argues Walt Patterson, an associate at Chatham House and author of "Keeping the Lights On," adding that "the big question mark is not sticking the stuff in the ocean, but how to get the electricity ashore."

A report released in Stockholm Monday by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) argues that offshore turbines could provide 10 percent of Europe's energy by 2020 – avoiding some 200 tons of C02 emissions.

Currently, 11 sets of the wind-powered turbines are circling off Europe's shores, with 21 under construction, mostly in Great Britain. At the moment they only contribute about .02 percent of Europe's electricity needs.

EU energy czar Andris Piebalgs backed the EWEA's ambitious plans to harness ocean winds, saying in Stockholm that the European commission is "committed to doing everything we can to support offshore wind developers and make sure their… projects come to fruition."

The EWEA Stockholm wind conference, called "Oceans of Opportunity," comes at a time when Europe is focusing on climate control and job creation. Offshore turbines are also seen as a solution to complaints from Europeans who do not want the gargantuan turbines in their backyards.

Complaints and hurdles

But people also have complaints about turbines at sea. Complaints that the turbines ruin ocean views have slowed US efforts to get a project started off the coast of Massachusetts. The US has virtually no offshore wind energy, though the Obama administration has started to work on the issue.

There are also economic limitations, since electricity produced by offshore turbines is more expensive to deliver to consumers. There are also maintenance concerns involving storms at sea and corrosion from salt water. Mr. Patterson says the biggest hurdle is making the power deliverable.

"It's a chicken and egg question, really," says Patterson. "If you are the industry, do you wait for the cables to be laid on the ocean floor, or do you build the fields and then hope they are laid?"

The industry was boosted by a recent EU law requiring that 20 percent of Europe's energy be obtained from renewable sources by 2020. Some 15 European states are planning offshore projects, according to the EWEA report. "There is huge developer interest in offshore wind power," Arthuros Zervos, president of EWEA, said in a statement Monday. "The scale of planned projects is far greater than most people realize."

Britain's Daily Telegraph reported on Monday that Germany is about to begin construction of a wind farm 12 miles off its Baltic coast that German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee said would produce 12,000 megawatts of electricity, bringing Germany "closer to our goal of producing 25,000 megawatts offshore by 2030."

This week the American electric giant GE, which produces nearly a quarter of the turbines for wind power worldwide, said it will enter the offshore market for the first time.

The Financial Times reported Monday that GE is expected to invest "hundreds of millions" in developing offshore turbines. The FT reported that GE "is also buying ScanWind, a small Norwegian-Swedish turbine company for 18 million, giving it access to new turbine technology, tested in harsh conditions on the coast of Norway."

The EWEA in Stockholm presented data asserting that all of Europe's energy needs could one day be met by eight fields of turbines roughly the size of 10,000 square kilometers, off the coasts of EU states.

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