The changing fortunes of Germany’s first offshore wind service island
The island of Heligoland – the namesake of the HelWin cluster in Germany’s North Sea – has enjoyed an economic windfall from the offshore wind energy boom. The change of fortunes is the latest upswing for the tiny island that has had more than its fair share of drama – including a colossal explosion that almost wiped it off the map.
On the flight from Cuxhaven, the long grey North Sea swells are suddenly broken by the rocky outpost of Heligoland, called Helgoland in German. The red sandstone cliffs soar abruptly above the waves up to 50 metres high – making a wedge that then slopes gently down the other side to the sea. To the south the reclaimed harbour walls appear to nearly double Heligoland’s 4.2 square kilometres. Below us, a crew transfer vessel is returning, leaving a white trail out to sea. The plane lands on Heligoland’s even smaller satellite island – Düne – a flat sand bank just large enough for an airstrip. The boat ride into Heligoland’s inner harbour is choppy. Outside, the crisp, pure sea breezes carry the calls of countless sea birds. The island is famous for its thousands of nesting herring gulls, razorbills, fulmars, murres and black-legged kittiwakes. As a tourist destination, it attracts a hardy sort of traveller.
Tourism and War
A neglected British territory from the Napoleonic era, the island’s fortunes changed for the better in 1890 when the British struck a deal with the Germans and traded Heligoland for Zanzibar. It became a popular resort for intellectuals and artists seeking quiet inspiration and attracted by the healthy pollen-free salt air. But that period was abruptly ended by Hitler’s rise to power and British bombing raids during World War II. After the war, with the island’s inhabitants relocated to the mainland, the British decided to blow up the island’s military infrastructure and the huge network of tunnels. On 18 April 1947 the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 tonnes of explosives. It remains today one of the biggest single non-nuclear detonations in history. The plume of smoke was visible as far away as the Netherlands.
Duty free bonanza
Heligoland survived. The locals – a Frisian people with their own dialect – eventually returned to the wasteland and began rebuilding. The island’s tax-exempt status – Heligoland is excluded from Europe’s VAT area and customs union – prompted a boom in visitors arriving to purchase cheap liquor and cigarettes. From the seventies to the early nineties was a golden era for Heligoland, with up to 800,000 people a year flocking to the tiny island.
But as mainland prices fell, Heligoland’s fortunes once again waned. The shoppers stopped coming and the number of tourists making the journey to see the island’s natural beauty also steadily declined. The island’s inhabitants – less than 1,500 – began a slow drain to the mainland.
Winds of change
The onshore demonstrator wind turbine Growian 2 on Helgoland (1990 – 1995) helped prove the possibilities for wind energy to the world. In the decade that followed, offshore wind developed from theory into commercial reality. For projects planned far out to sea past the Frisian Island national parks in the German Bight, Heligoland formed a natural staging point. From 2010, the construction boom began. The wind farm and grid connection operators – RWE Innogy, E.ON, WindMW Gmbh and TenneT – and their partners invested billions of euros in the HelWin cluster projects. Heligoland’s economy has seen the benefits – building service centres, increased spending by offshore technicians, and harbour infrastructure improvements. The heritage-listed fisherman’s houses – long a tourist attraction on the edge of a sleepy harbour – bore witness to increasingly busy crew transfer vessel movements in the harbour. Some of these vessels, which include many Damen Twin Axe FCS 2610s, operated 24/7 during the busiest periods.
“Severn Provider has been working around Heligoland since delivery from Damen about a year and half ago. As a service base, the island’s facilities are fantastic – very established considering it’s in the middle of nowhere. The logistics of getting there are not that simple. From the UK you can almost get to Australia faster than to Heligoland. But it’s a beautiful place, quite dramatic.” Ryan Hopkins, Managing Director Severn Offshore Services.
The wind farms in the vicinity are now all generating energy: Nordsee Ost, Amrumbank West and Meerwind Süd | Ost. The hectic construction phase has given way to O&M routine and a calmness has returned to the island. There are almost no cars on the island, supporting the more relaxed pace of life. Tourism is steady, buoyed perhaps by the attention that offshore wind has generated. The birdlife is flourishing. Grey seals – thought to have vanished forever in the eighties – have returned and lounge in considerable numbers across the stony beaches. The wind farms themselves have become a tourist attraction. But are there new HelWin cluster projects looming on the horizon? Heligoland is certainly ready.
295 megawatt (48 turbines)
Operator: RWE Innogy (completed May 2015)
MEERWIND SÜD | OST
288 megawatt (80 turbines)
Operator: WindMW Gmbh
(completed September 2014)
HELWIN1 AND HELWIN ALPHA PLATFORM
576 megawatt HVDC connection from Nordsee Ost
and Meerwind Süd/Ost to German mainland
Operator: TenneT (completed February 2015)
302 megawatts (80 turbines)
Operator: E.ON (completed October 2015)
HELWIN2 AND HELWIN BETA PLATFORM
690 megawatt grid connection – Amrumbank West
to German mainland
Operator: TenneT (completed June 2015)