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Ghost of Horns Reef haunts offshore

The ghost of Horns Reef loomed over the offshore sessions at the European Wind Energy Conference in London in late November. Nobody actually spoke about the complete retrofit of transformers and generators on all 80 turbines at Horn Reef in the Danish North Sea after only two years of operation. But the failure of the Vestas 2 MW units at the world's first large wind power station swirled around delegates like a cold chill.

Problems at Horns Reef were carefully ignored during EWEC's offshore sessions, which mainly focused on the UK's progress and financing difficulties. Meanwhile all bets on Germany as the next big thing are being called off

Ghost of Horns Reef haunts offshore

The ghost of Horns Reef loomed over the offshore sessions at the European Wind Energy Conference (EWEC 2004) in London in late November. Nobody actually spoke about the complete retrofit of transformers and generators on all 80 wind turbines at Horn Reef in the Danish North Sea after only two years of operation. But the failure of the Vestas 2 MW units at the world's first large wind power station in truly offshore waters swirled around delegates like a cold chill.

As a result, offshore news at EWEC 2004 seemed frozen in suspended animation. A number of presentations were reruns from other conferences in the last two or three years. It became clear, however, that the UK is rapidly taking over from Denmark as offshore market leader, despite Denmark's two new calls for a further 400 MW to add to the 400 MW running today. Meanwhile, Germany looks increasingly unlikely to have its planned 500 MW up by 2006.

It was a non-offshore session on public acceptance of wind power that brought the Horns Reef ghost out of the attic. Elsam Engineering's Jette Kjær told how public acceptance of Horns Reef has been high, attributing its popularity in Denmark to Elsam's open information policy. "The breakdowns have had no impact on people's support of the project. We don't see any negative reaction," she said. Denmark's other large offshore plant, Nysted, is also well thought of and public hearings for the Horns Reef II project, currently out to tender, are going well, said Kjær. "There have been some technical problems, but they've been solved now," she concluded. "I haven't seen any negative reaction to any offshore projects."

Afterwards, wind veteran Chris Westra from the Netherlands' Energy Research Centre (ECN) was aghast. "A Dutch TV crew flew over Horns Reef and the footage they showed in Holland was of just four turbines turning and then a lot of sticks [towers without nacelles] poking up from the sea," he said. After seeing all the problems at Horns Reef, members of the Dutch parliament became highly critical of their government's support of offshore wind power. Subsequently, the Dutch minister has applied the brakes and decided to take everything much more cautiously, said Westra. "Is [Kjær] reading the local papers every day?" asked Westra. "I can't imagine there's been no negative impact. We have to face so much in Holland now. Elsam must at least talk about it. If an airplane crashes, we all go for the black box. If there is a problem with a wind turbine, you get silence. Why not have an open and good discussion?" asked Westra.

Horns Reef's problems were acknowledged without so many words in a presentation by Per Volund of Danish utility Energi E2, which owns the 165 MW Nysted plant. "Time is the key," Volund said. "We had plenty of time -- for planning, for tendering suppliers, for designing, for implementation. If you do not rush, then you can handle the problems."

German patience

In Germany, with tens of thousands of megawatt of offshore wind in development offshore, more than extra time is needed. Cornelia Viertl of the federal environment ministry admitted her country still had nothing built at sea. The ministry aims to have 500 MW of offshore turning by 2006 and 3000 MW by 2010. Viertl explained Germany's step-by-step process, allowing only 80 turbines for initial pilot projects, which must then be monitored for three years before any expansion.

"If you are going to have these 500 MW in by 2006, followed by three years of monitoring, how are you going to get to 3000 MW by 2010?" asked Eddie O'Connor from Irish developer Airtricity. "We will do it very fast," replied Viertl. "That will not be a problem. There are 30,000 MW applied for."

The German shipping authority, Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie (BSH), has issued seven site licences, but all but one project lacks permission to take a cable to land. Only regional authorities can issue cable permits and each state has a different application system. The ministry tried informally to co-ordinate the cable approval process for a year, Viertl said, but without success. Cable routes must also pass through nature protection areas close to shore, adding further complication.

"It's not because of lack of intention," Viertl said. "We have all the incentives in place for offshore development: high tariffs, planning guidelines, the legal basis. But there is very deep water in the suitable areas, which are far from shore. There is so far no experience in these conditions. There are so many risks."

When contrasted to the UK's progress, Germany's offshore challenge looked extremely difficult by the end of EWEC -- despite the UK's own hurdles. The overwhelming presence of British-based offshore industry suppliers on the exhibition floor mixed with an upbeat talk from Gordon Edge of the British Wind Energy Association left little doubt about where the action is.

With E.on UK's 60 MW Scroby Sands plant being commissioned, the UK's total offshore capacity by the end of 2004 was set at 124 MW. This year, two more 90 MW plant, both using 30, Vestas 3 MW V90 turbines, are expected to go up at Kentish Flats in the Thames Estuary and Barrow off the north west coast, pushing the UK's offshore total above 300 MW. Two more plant from the UK's first round of offshore development -- Robin Rigg and Lynn and Inner Dowsing -- are currently in the tender process. Edge said they could be built by the end of next year.

Beyond that, the Crown Estate's second round of offshore development is looking hazy. The biggest problem lies in financing the undersea cables, said Edge. "Round Two was tendered on assumption that grid costs would be socialised," he continued. "People mean different things when they say the word socialised. It's not clear if the cost is paid by someone else. We're working hard to try to sort this one out."

Edge explained that there is a gap between the income expected for sales of power under the Renewables Obligation legislation and the money needed for offshore construction -- and this gap is roughly the same size as grid costs. "What we'd like to see is for a developer to build the undersea cable on their own, and then sign it over to the regional transmission operators, so that the cost gets taken away," he said. "This is the likely scenario for the earlier round two projects."

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