The turbines are part of a project expected to be the world’s largest offshore wind farm when it is completed later this year. But only for a while, because it’s a prelude to something much bigger. In a few years, its developer, Swedish energy company Vattenfall AB, plans to start a new project farther offshore, in deeper waters, with turbines as tall as London’s 580-foot Gherkin skyscraper.
Just one problem: Vattenfall has no idea how it’s going to build it. “The equipment we need to operate in such rough waters doesn’t exist yet,” says Ole Bigum Nielsen, the project manager.
Europe is making a huge bet on wind energy. Because there is little room in its crowded countryside for sprawling wind-tower complexes, planners are increasingly looking to the sea. Europe’s current 2,000 megawatts of offshore generating capacity will grow at least 40,000 megawatts by 2020, enough to power more than 25 million households, the European Wind Energy Association predicts.
Britain is making the biggest wind wager. By offering generous incentives, the U.K. already has built more offshore wind power than any other nation. Now it is planning a wave of vast new wind farms, in some of Europe’s stormiest waters.
The U.K.’s commitment is driven by stringent European Union targets. To meet them, Britain will have to raise the share of its electricity that comes from renewable sources to about 30% by 2020. It’s just 7% now. The U.K. also adopted a “carbon budget” a year ago, committing to reduce emissions to at least 34% below 1990 levels by 2018-2022.
Some dismiss the windmills as quixotic. Wind energy needs massive subsidies to be economic. The cost to carry out Britain’s plans is estimated at $150 billion. Some predict a consumer backlash against resulting higher energy bills. And many more challenges await, judging from those the project at Kent faced, ranging from the need to protect marine worms to a design flaw that causes turbines to sink into their foundations.