A Struggle in Europe for Offshore Wind Power

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Despite the financial crisis, it seems that wind power is moving up the political agenda everywhereBut as China and the United States continue to develop their wind resources on the ground, a question for Europe is how many windmills can be built out at sea.

Inland sites are much less available in Europe than in some other parts of the world. Building windmills at sea also helps to overcome Not-In-My-Backyard protests from homeowners who complain that windmills are ugly and noisy.

Furthermore, the wind across the sea is stronger and more stable, resulting in higher levels of electricity generation. Developers also can generally build bigger turbines because there is no need to haul the massive components by narrow roads to remote inland locations.

But so far Europe has had mixed experiences with offshore wind.

In one case, in 2004, turbines at Horns Reef, some 10 miles off the Danish coast, broke down, their critical equipment damaged by storms and salt water.

Vestas, a Danish manufacturer, fixed the problem by replacing the equipment at a cost of €38 million, or $50 million. But Vestas officials warned that the lesson from Horns Reef was that wind farms at sea would remain far more expensive than those on land.

Even so, European Union officials say they are determined to push forward with offshore ambitions. Last week, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said that a robust policy of support for wind is critical to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing energy security and improving EU competitiveness.

But Mr. Piebalgs also acknowledged that there are challenges that could remain substantial for the European wind sector.

Wind in Europe is caught in what EU officials call a “double squeeze.” Offshore wind developers are competing with their onshore counterparts for turbine production capacity, and then competing with the oil and gas exploration industry for offshore equipment and expertise.

There also are still too few ways of connecting windmills out at sea to national electricity grids in the region, and that lack of infrastructure could discourage offshore investment.

Yet another obstacle is that some countries with extensive coastlines have not yet designated areas to be protected under EU legislation for birds. That could create situations where developers become snarled in regulatory red tape.

Without progress in these areas, the EU may not be able to reach its wind power potential by the key date of 2020, when 20 percent of the trade bloc’s electricity production is supposed to come from renewable sources of energy.

As for the aesthetic quality of windmills, which many Europeans continue to regard as a blot on the landscape, Mr. Pielbags, in a recent blog entry, described how artists in the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and Latvia have long had a tradition of including windmills in their paintings, literature and heritage sites.

“Are windmills beautiful?” he asked. “The answer is easy. Yes they are.”

Mr. Piebalgs then encouraged Europeans to consider the alternatives:

“I recently received as a present a painting of a northern French landscape with the two cooling towers of nearby nuclear plant. The painting had a lot of merit, no doubt. But if I have to choose, I prefer windmills.”

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