Learning from each other: The UK and Germany need to work together

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As the UK prepares for the future development of the Round Three leases for larger wind farms in deeper waters, the techniques and experience that have been perfected will now need to be adapted to cope with the harsher conditions of working further offshore. The German renewables market has vast experience of this type of working but could benefit from the offshore personnel the UK boasts. 

Eckhard Bruckschen, Operations Director at Offshore Marine Management (OMM), looks at both the UK and German markets and discusses how shared knowledge could transform the offshore renewables industry for both countries. With the demand for low carbon solutions increasing, wind energy is becoming a popular choice throughout Europe.

The UK is one of Europe’s windiest countries and therefore has great potential for wind power but has been slow to exploit this. Germany, on the other hand, is taking full advantage of wind as an energy source and is already meeting more than 10% of its electricity needs from wind energy in general.

From learning……

Initially, engineers responsible for Germany’s wind farms attempted to learn from the earlier UK experience. However it became apparent very quickly that the techniques required in each industry were very different. Wind farms in the UK, such as those built under the first two rounds of leasing from the Crown Estate, are generally built very close to shore, whereas Germany has had to position its wind farms further from shore in waters with depths of 30 metres or more.

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To doing…..

As Germany began to realise that it could not follow the leads and practices of the UK market, their renewables industry had to begin to ‘learn by doing’. Engineers had to rethink the whole design and build of foundations that were required to hold up to 800 tonnes of steel in these deeper waters. They also had to select the best vessels to use and adopt different methodologies to enable people to work in very different conditions.

This has been a slow process for the German wind market but it has eventually paid off. The Germans have now perfected their techniques and have built a strong renewables sector through a combination of ambition and regulatory consistency. It is fair to say that Germany now holds an advantage over the UK in terms of working on larger wind farms, despite the former’s greater geographic potential for wind power.

To teaching…..

There are lessons to be learned, and while the perception may have been that Germany could be soaking up the wisdom that the UK should be able to offer, we are now starting to see that the potential of being the teacher lies within the German renewables market. Not only have German engineers perfected the techniques needed to build successful deep water offshore wind farms, they have also begun to consider different options on how to run their successful renewables businesses.

One of the main mistakes I can see in the UK is the determination to remain focused on the use of a single contractor to work on preparing a site for a new wind farm. There is no logical explanation for this and it is actually proving to be detrimental to the UK as companies are fighting against each other to win work. The UK market is actually beginning to slow down as companies start pulling out of the industry due to undercutting pricing tactics.
As the UK wind farm plans start to echo those in the German Baltic Sea in terms of size and positioning in deeper waters, the work which will need to be carried out will become more complex. It will no longer be cost effective for one contactor to carry out all the work. With work beginning on the 160 turbine wind farm in Gwynt y Mor, off the coast of Wales, this would be an ideal opportunity for the UK to use more than one contractor and lead the way in showing how much more efficiently the work can be carried out under this arrangement.

Still to be learned

The German industry can still learn from the experiences from abroad and this is reflected in the many international companies setting up offices in Germany also. In August 2011 we significantly expanded our business in the German sector via the establishment of our first operational Support Base at Cuxport. Working in the UK and Germany has given us a unique understanding of both renewables markets.

From our experience of working with TenneT to provide project management and strategic consultancy as well as client representative support and guard vessels, we believe that the German renewables market is currently lacking access to trained offshore personnel within the country.

This lack of personnel who are qualified to work offshore requires skill to be brought in from other countries including Denmark and the UK, which we can provide. For OMM, this is where we will see time and money being focused in Germany over the next few years; Germany is rightly protective of its industry and is keen to up skill its domestic workforce to carry out the jobs that are available. At the moment most of these training initiatives are focused on turbine contractors but this will expand to include crew for vessels.

The future of the German offshore renewables market

Despite the slow start, Germany has begun to ramp up its activity in the offshore renewables market and is now one of the fastest growing renewables markets in the world. For a country which relied heavily on nuclear power this transition has been hugely significant. Germany initially had a target of 30% renewable electricity by 2020 but this has since been updated to 38% according to the National Renewable Energy Action Plan.

learningI believe that the German wind energy industry has the potential to overtake that of the UK within the next two to three years. While this is partly due to the fact that Round Three wind farms are still some way off development in the UK, it must also be attributed to Germany’s willingness to try new things – questioning the norms of working within a still young industry and doing away with what some in the industry may deem to be the ‘correct way’ to do things.

I am not the only one to see this potential. A Carbon Trust survey at the beginning of 2011 revealed that three times as many top UK decision makers believed that Germany was better prepared than the UK to take advantage of the global environmental energy and renewable market. The highest number of those surveyed (34%) believed that Germany was best prepared to benefit from green and renewable energy growth whereas only one in eight believed that it was the UK.

And finally…

The issues for the German market are focused around the lack of trained personnel while the issues for the UK arise from engineering issues and logistics of learning how to work in the different environment the planned larger wind farms will bring.

Germany has already spent a huge amount of time and money on learning and understanding how to overcome the issues faced when working on larger offshore wind farms in deeper waters and now has techniques in place to work successfully. This might not have been necessary if the opportunity to learn directly from other countries existed and now other nations, including the UK, would do well to look to Germany for inspiration in how to complete complex offshore installations effectively.

With thanks to Eckhard Bruckschen, Operations Director at Offshore Marine Management (OMM)