A North Sea full of wind?

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 24/06/2009

How proudly were they spinning, the six 5 MW windmills that were inaugurated today as Belgium's first off-shore windmill park. And they had several reasons to be proud:

- They stand 30 kilometers away from the coastline, no other windmill park is so far off-shore.

- They have a capacity of 5 MW each, which means that they are among the biggest windmills on the planet.

- It took a lot of pioneering engineering to build windmills at such a location. The concrete bases on which they stand, were constructed on shore in the port of Ostend and then dragged into the open sea. A huge crowd came to watch this spectacle.

- The investors in this project (C-Power) deserve applause for their perseverance. It took them eleven years to go from idea to realization. They had to edit 720 kilograms of files to apply for the 29 authorisations that were necessary for the windmills to be constructed.

I have the impression that in those eleven years the public attitude towards wind power has shifted remarkably. When plans for windmills in front of the Belgian Coast were first aired, they caused public outrage. Owners of appartments on the sea front didn't want their sight blurred by spinning blades.  The protest of inhabitants and politicians of the posh seaside resort Knokke became symbolic. Today, inhabitants of Knokke have asked C-Power to invest in fixed binoculars on the promenade for them to see the windmills. (Which is quite ironic, the mills have been constructed so far from the promenade, to avoid that they could be seen.) In my hometown, two windmills have recently been erected. If there was any protest, it certainly was very quiet. I have heard none of my neighbors complain that those mills are destroying their quality of life. I have personally grown quite attached to them.

You can see them standing from quite far. This means that when I'm driving home after a long trip, I have that nice 'coming home' feeling for a longer period then in the past. Maybe the images of icebears scrambling to find some ice left in the Artic have created enough of an impression for people to accept that we have to look for alternative ways of producing energy. Although 'alternative' is a badly chosen word. Wind energy has left the world of tree-hugging and has become an integral part of modern life. The technological achievement of constructing 5 MW windmills so far into the sea is clear proof of that.

So my guess is that when another eleven years have passed, many more windmills will have been erected. Maybe the ring-fence of windpower in the North-Sea that some European politicians dream about will have become a reality. This idea is all about constructing multiple off-shore parks in the Belgian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and British zones of the North Sea and connecting them with cables. Some Dutch politicians are talking about building up to 20.000 MW of wind power production capacity in the Dutch part of the sea. That would be equal to what the Netherlands today has installed in conventional capacity.

Such huge amounts of wind energy on the grid will create new market conditions. Wind power changes energy pricing in two perspectives: 1. as its fuel cost is zero, it reduces the marginal cost price of energy, 2. as it comes only when the wind blows, an important element of unpredictability enters the power markets. In countries like Germany and Denmark, with large windmill capacities, we can already see how this influences the markets. When the wind starts to blow spot power prices fall, when it is windstill, spot power prices rise. This changes the conditions for maximizing profits at e.g. gas-fired power plants. With wind power, the energy market economics become a lot more exciting! In the future, you will have to check the wind conditions on the North Sea not to plan your sailing weekend, but when you want to buy energy.

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