For centuries, Dutch windmills have pumped water out of the low-lying country, and old-fashioned wooden mills are as closely linked with the Netherlands’ international image as its dikes and bikes.
But in the face of a large and growing lobby against the windmill’s modern electricity-generating counterpart — the wind turbine — the country has started moving them offshore and out of sight.
The Egmond aan Zee wind farm, the first major offshore Dutch project, is nearing completion 8 miles from Haarlem and is scheduled to go on line this fall. It has 36 turbines, each with arms reaching higher than a football field, capable of producing a combined 108 megawatts an hour — enough to power roughly 100,000 households.
It’s the first in a flood of similar-sized offshore projects proposed for Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and the United States, in Texas, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
In the Netherlands, which targets having 9 percent of its electricity generated from renewable sources by 2010, the need to move offshore is growing more urgent due to the increasing number of wind turbine critics. They say the towering mechanical structures are blighting landscapes that once inspired Dutch painters like Rembrandt van Rijn.
“We have such a flat country, normally nothing blocks your view of the sky,” said Jim Mollet, leader of an anti-windmill group that claims 15,000 members. “These days, any turbine worthy of the name dwarfs even the church towers.”
He said his group offers a playbook to local protesters on how to resist proposals for new turbines, often by farmers seeking generous state subsidies. He said the turbines are not only responsible for “horizon pollution,” but are noisy and inefficient as well.
“We’re not just NIMBY about wind energy,” Mollet said, referring to the “not in my backyard” acronym. “We’re NIABY — not in anybody’s backyard.”
Offshore still small slice
While landbased wind turbines have made significant inroads in Europe and now claim around 2.7 percent of the total European generation market, offshore turbines have remained little more than a curiosity because the economics are daunting.
Europe has 40,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, the U.S. has 9,000 megawatts, and an additional 10,000 megawatts are scattered around the globe, mostly in Asia. But so far just 600 megawatts are generated offshore — more than half in Denmark.
Christian Kjaer, policy director for the European Wind Energy Association, predicts onshore wind generation will continue to grow, especially in areas less densely populated than the Netherlands. But he expects offshore generation will grow even faster, increasing its share to a third of all wind energy in Europe by 2020 and half by 2030.
Building the turbines offshore means they don’t spoil anybody’s view, and they can harness more consistent and stronger offshore winds. But they must be rugged enough to weather salty sea air and the pounding of ocean storms.
“It’s a new technology, so costs are falling,” Kjaer said. “At a certain point the cost curves will collide” and offshore electricity will become cheaper than onshore production. “But the question is, when?”
Obstacle to Dutch project
The Egmond project — jointly owned by Royal Dutch Shell and the Dutch utility company Nuon NV — is costing $250 million to build, debatably more than the revenue it will generate over its 20-year lifetime.
A package of direct aid, tax breaks and production subsidies will cover more than 100 percent of the construction costs over the first decade. Anti-windmill activist Mollet says this money is little more than a handout, but the companies argue they face hard-to-quantify maintenance costs and other risks.
“It’s at sea that a company like Shell has a competitive edge, on a large, capital-intensive project with large technical challenges,” said Huub den Rooijen, director of the joint venture.
One late difficulty was the need to find a new location for the coastal substation where cables carrying electricity from the turbines connect with the Dutch power grid. A town successfully contested the original plan.
The big, 1,000-megawatt London Array project in Britain is stalled by a similar fight over the location of a substation.
Consensus on other sites
In the Netherlands, the Dutch government has carefully mapped out space for 65 wind farms in the North Sea during a 10-year consensus-building phase.
They chose sites in shallow waters, out of sight except under extremely clear conditions, avoiding shipping lanes around Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, and far enough from shore to reduce the danger of their whirling blades to coastal and migratory birds.
Hans Peeters, director of the Netherlands’ Bird Protection Society, said his group has opposed several projects where the proposed sites might threaten birds, but he supports the offshore projects.
“It’s too bad when any bird is killed, but as a nature organization we are for wind energy,” he said. “You must balance the threat to birds from turbines in the short term against the threat of global warming in the long run.”
Peeters said his group drew hope from a Danish study that found fewer migrating birds were killed by offshore turbines than expected.
“Apparently, birds see the turbines and avoid them,” he said.