Energy transition: wind power at sea - from pioneering work to a booming industry?

Pilot Falko Baguhl steers his helicopter safely towards his destination in the middle of the North Sea, around 15 kilometers north of the island of Borkum: approach to the Riffgat offshore wind farm.

Energy transition: wind power at sea - from pioneering work to a booming industry?

Pilot Falko Baguhl steers his helicopter safely towards his destination in the middle of the North Sea, around 15 kilometers north of the island of Borkum: approach to the Riffgat offshore wind farm. Through the open side door you can see the helicopter slowly landing between the wind turbines. Below, the North Sea waves glitter in the bright sunlight. On this late autumn day, Baguhl and his co-pilot from the Emden company Heliservice are using their machine to bring three technicians from Omexom to the wind farm's substation platform for maintenance work. Normally, technicians and helicopter crew are alone during such maneuvers - this time the companies are making an exception for a team of reporters.

When the landing platform of the substation is reached and the rotor blades of the red and yellow helicopter come to a standstill, the technicians get straight to work - a generator has reported a malfunction. Her boss Irina Lucke, managing director of Omexom Renewable Energies Offshore, a maintenance service provider, was flown out that day. The manager has been there since the beginning of the German offshore industry 17 years ago. In 2010 she took over the technical project management for the Riffgat wind farm, the first commercial German wind farm in the North Sea.

More pioneering work than a return project

“When we started here, we only saw the sea around us,” Lucke remembers the construction work in 2012 and points from the parapet to the open North Sea. At the time, the Riffga wind farm with 30 turbines was more of a pioneering work than a return on investment project. The park can supply around 120,000 households with electricity. Now, she says, there is a “spectacular horizon” here. Dozens of wind turbines shimmer in the distance. “We achieved this within ten years and nothing happened for three years, so net in seven years,” says Lucke, audibly proud. There is “incredible energy” in the market. "It's going uphill steeply."

Around 1,500 wind turbines installed

However, there is still a huge gap between expansion goals and the current situation. Since the first wind farm went into operation, 24 more have been built in the North and Baltic Seas. Since then, 1,563 wind turbines with a generation capacity of around 8.3 gigawatts have been rotating off the German coast. This corresponds roughly to the output of eight large nuclear power plants. The commissioning of the newest wind farm, Arcadis Ost 1, with 27 wind turbines on the Baltic Sea off Rügen, will take place in a few days on December 5th.

Offshore wind power has recently weakened. The expansion was not attractive enough; in 2021, for the first time, no new facilities were built at sea. “A growing sector of the economy has once been driven against the wall,” says Stefan Thimm, managing director of the Federal Association of Offshore Wind Energy (BWO), with a view to the years in government of the coalition between the Union and the SPD. That's why more speed must now be increased. Due to lead times, the largest expansion will not take place until 2028.

In fact, politicians want to push ahead with expansion in order to achieve the climate goals and to cover the needs that arise from the phase-out of coal and nuclear energy. In April of this year, the North Sea neighbors agreed to develop the sea into the “green power plant of Europe”. The residents want to install offshore wind turbines with an output of at least 300 gigawatts by 2050. Germany increased its offshore targets last year and announced that it would aim for at least 30 gigawatts by 2030 and at least 70 gigawatts by 2045.

Conservationists fear industrialization

While the offshore industry is in the starting blocks, conservationists are very concerned about the pace set. The Nature Conservation Association of Germany (Nabu) recently criticized the expansion target of 70 gigawatts in a statement and warned against "reckless industrialization". It was said that the North Sea is already overused today by fishing, shipping, raw material mining, platforms and pipelines.

Omexom manager Lucke admits that in the future there will be a need for a “sensible dialogue” between the offshore industry, nature conservation and fishing. "The discussions take place far too rarely." The waterborne industry wants to avoid a dwindling acceptance like the expansion of wind power on land.

Global race for resources

The industry sees a further challenge in the global competition that the offshore industry faces. "We don't have as many installation ships as we need. We don't have as many cable plants, not as many turbine plants," explains Lucke. And then there is a big problem with skilled workers. “We have to make sure we don’t cannibalize each other,” warns the manager. Every renewable energy has its right to exist and is looking for personnel.

The offshore industry is lacking skilled workers not only on the North Sea, but also on land. “We are constantly looking for staff,” says Jens Oliver Freiland, head of the company Heliservice, which flew the technicians to the substation platform. The company once started with two helicopters in Emden, now there are eight.

Recruitment across Europe

The lack of staff and excessive bureaucracy are slowing down the spirit of optimism, says Freiland. Not only pilots, but especially highly specialized aircraft mechanics are difficult to find. It takes up to eight years for a mechanic to fully get into the job after training and collecting licenses. "At the same time you become a heart surgeon." The offshore industry is therefore also insisting on more immigration. The Heliservice has long been looking for staff across Europe.

More and more helicopter flights will be needed in the future, says Freiland. "We are already seeing a trend in which flight volumes are increasing as wind farms change their logistics concepts." In addition, says Freiland, wind farms on the North Sea will soon be built so much further out than the offshore Riffgat wind farm that they will only be easily accessible by helicopter.

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