Converting wind energy into big business




LELYSTAD, Netherlands 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 Nuon, a Dutch utility.

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 may have little choice. Across windswept Northern Europe, hundreds of high-powered turbines are 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. "The demonstration projects out at sea have been a success. Now people are going for full-scale marine wind parks. 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 offshore oil and gas companies, including giants like Shell, that have the capability to drill and rig up the 100-ton towers at sea.

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 that great wind parks are marring the landscape. On the Dutch coast near Lelystad, 28 windmills stand in a perfect lineup near the shore, anchored in about six meters (20 feet) of water. The swoosh of the wind going over the blades is barely audible, even drowned out by the squawking of the sea gulls.

"It's new, it's clean, it's high tech," said Henk Kouwenhoven, a manager of Nuon, who watched the towers go up in 1996. "The offshore potential is enormous. Here we never run out of wind. It blows 90 percent of the time. The main issue is making it cost-efficient."

Wind power is already big business. Europe's wind-driven energy has been growing at 40 percent a year. With a capacity of more than 20,000 megawatts installed on land, it now represents three-fourths of the world's total wind-power output. Europe hopes to raise this to 60,000 megawatts 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."

Advocates see the move offshore as an impressive rite of passage in the history of an ancient technology. For centuries, tapping the wind was the domain of the miller, his family and his hand-set sails.

Even modern wind energy had humble beginnings in Europe. In the 1970s, it was started by grass-roots groups of often politically motivated investors putting up one or two private windmills in an orchard or a field. There are still thousands of private owners in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. But wind power is no longer a cottage industry, and the windmills of today are not the charming, stubby kind that once pumped much of this country dry and became a national emblem. These are the modern variety, called turbines, that are becoming sleeker, taller and more powerful by the year.

"The largest turbines now produce 250 times more electricity than the ones built 20 years ago," Millais said. Today wind provides an estimated 28 million Europeans with electricity, he said, about half of them in Germany, Europe's largest producer.

The European Union has been pushing to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, which are widely believed to contribute to global warming. It wants 22 percent of its electricity - and 12 percent 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. Here, wind projects have been encouraged with incentives like tax credits and guaranteed rates, and the emphasis is now shifting offshore. About 100 sea-based turbines are already operating. This year, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands have all earmarked large offshore sites and issued licenses. Some of the projects are scheduled to be ready next year.

The new endeavors are not without problems or critics. Environmental groups are divided. Some defend the wind turbines as a renewable source of pollution-free energy, while others fear the offshore turbines will disturb fishing and spawning grounds and endanger birds that migrate at night. In Britain and Norway, the military has objected to some designated coastal sites, saying wind parks can produce false radar echoes and disturb telecommunications. There are other hurdles as well. Offshore turbines may be more productive, but building costs are 50 percent 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, who monitors about 200 windmills, including some at sea. "You can do maintenance work really only in the summer."

Then there is the price. Industry spokesmen contend that, strictly speaking, 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.

While no one expects wind to become more important than traditional power sources, enthusiasts are undeterred, and the growth of wind-powered turbines is likely to continue. Denmark uses wind to produce 18 percent of its electricity, the world's highest per capita consumption. Britain intends to catch up.

The British government has designated 12 offshore turbine sites. Brian Wilson, the energy minister, 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 billion by 2007. Most of that, he said, will be in Europe. "I don't see anything stopping offshore electricity now," said Kouwenhoven, of Nuon, which has teamed up with Royal Dutch Shell in a joint venture. "Shell knows the offshore business, we know the wind business. It's just a matter of moving ahead."