Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Leading the way

It's nice to have someone else sort out the problems of renewables.  It's even nicer when that someone is German.  Why?  Because no tribe on earth is as practiced at making even bad ideas work well.  For example, there is probably no idea that is more unworkable than to build a high-powered sports car with the engine mounted behind the rear axel.  Objects in motion tend to be far more stable when the weight is concentrated in the nose—as with an arrow.  If the weight is concentrated in the tail, the tail keeps trying to pass the nose.  To even try to make such a configuration work seems an act of lunacy yet the Germans managed to build such a car and make it one of the most desirable vehicles ever built—the Porsche 911.  And they made it work through dogged persistence and a willingness to fuss over a thousand details.

Replacing nuclear power with wind will probably make the 911 problems look very elementary.  But if humanity is really going to power itself with renewables, SOMEONE has to solve these problems.  In this article, we read of Germans complaining how hard it is—thank goodness they are the world champions at producing the essential elements of infrastructure.

Stress on the High Seas
Germany's Wind Power Revolution in the Doldrums
By Frank Dohmen and Alexander Jung   12/30/2011

The construction of offshore wind parks in the North Sea has hit a snag with a vital link to the onshore power grid hopelessly behind schedule. The delays have some reconsidering the ability of wind power to propel Germany into the post-nuclear era.

The generation of electricity from wind is usually a completely odorless affair. After all, the avoidance of emissions is one of the unique charms of this particular energy source.

But when work is completed on the Nordsee Ost wind farm, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, the sea air will be filled with a strong smell of fumes: diesel fumes.

The reason is as simple as it is surprising. The wind farm operator, German utility RWE, has to keep the sensitive equipment -- the drives, hubs and rotor blades -- in constant motion, and for now that requires diesel-powered generators. Because although the wind farm will soon be ready to generate electricity, it won't be able to start doing so because of a lack of infrastructure to transport the electricity to the mainland and feed it into the grid. The necessary connections and cabling won't be ready on time and the delay could last up to a year. 
In other words, before Germany can launch itself into the renewable energy era Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen so frequently hails, the country must first burn massive amounts of fossil fuels out in the middle of the North Sea -- a paradox as the country embarks on its energy revolution. 
One of the central projects of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition government, the scrapping of atomic energy and the switch to renewable energy, has hit a major obstacle. Nine months after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, Berlin's multi-billion-euro project is facing increasing difficulties. And the expansion of the country's offshore wind farms in particular, which Minister Röttgen considers of paramount importance, is constantly beset by new problems. 
Extremely Difficult Position 
On December 6 he received an urgent message from Leonhard Birnbaum, RWE's chief commercial officer, and Fritz Vahrenholt, who heads up the company's renewables division. The two men expressed their serious concern that "the timely realization of grid links" for offshore wind farms had become "dramatically problematic," thus seriously jeopardizing the expansion of the sector and therefore also the government's plans. "This development puts us in an extremely difficult position," the two RWE managers wrote. 
The energy industry is currently under more stress than almost any other sector of the German economy. The country's utilities are being forced to completely change their focus: away from nuclear power; away from their centralized structure; and away from their accustomed business models. The quartet of E.on, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, which for so long have been spoilt by enormous profits, has had to implement tough cost-cutting measures, and countless jobs have been sacrificed. E.on alone is shedding up to 11,000 of its workers, and the industry as a whole could ax more than 20,000 jobs in all. 
At the same time, the sector is forging aggressively into the business of regenerative sources of energy -- or at least that was the plan. Now it's becoming increasingly clear that the promised expansion will not progress as hoped due to a lack of the necessary conditions for its success. more


  1. These are severe engineering challenges, and in our financial chaos I can understand how they are experiencing fund-raising woes. Both reasons however should have been anticipated, still I wish them well in overcoming them.

    Personally, I still believe the solution should be many small installations instead of these monsterous ones; to install solar and wind on every building in every town, and to retrofit buildings with geothermal heating/cooling systems.

    These more local engineering challenges are much smaller, would employ more local workers, and are systems small enough for individuals to be included in the investment, which greatly limits the need for bank/large investor funding...which of course is why no one is pushing this in national or international politics.

  2. While I support micro distributed energy generation using PV, I am NOT convinced that "small is beautiful" works with wind power because the reality that wind isn't very strong or reliable until 100' in the air pretty much makes these giant wind turbine inevitable.

    Replacing fossil fuels will require every bit of ingenuity that we humans can muster. And as my brother discovered making his PV set-up work in central Florida, even the "easiest" solar installation is a LOT harder than it looks. He is a highly qualified builder with about eight LEED certifications so I am not sure this will ever be a DIY affair.

  3. "Replacing fossil fuels will require every bit of ingenuity that we humans can muster."

    All the more reason for humans not to rely totally on even the best German/Dutch engineers...we all have to step up, and after 30 years of losing jobs overseas, what are people waiting for, an invitation?

  4. When you have fallen as far behind as we have, the most effective strategy for catching up is to imitate the best until we have a grasp for how to do it better ourselves. As Veblen pointed out, there are MANY advantages to being second. But this is only true if you are willing to learn from the experiences of those who made all the mistakes in the process of becoming the leader.