German Shipyards See Future in Wind Power
After years of decline, Germany’s shipyards are now pinning their hopes on offshore wind farms, a key component of the country’s energy revolution. Some have converted entirely to building equipment for wind farms. But the initial euphoria has worn off as the true challenges of the transition become clear.
Two years ago, Tomas Marutz became the head of the Nordseewerke in Emden, Germany. The shipyard is one of the biggest and oldest in the country. But Marutz’s most important task now is, he says, “to get shipbuilding out of people’s heads.”
That’s no easy task for a man who speaks about ships like a father talking about his children. He is fascinating by the process of shipbuilding, from the lucky penny that is tossed under the first sheet of steel used in construction to the moment when a finished ship is launched from the docks. Building ships isn’t just a question of “welding individual pieces together,” he says. “It is a holistic creation.”
But these days, Marutz doesn’t have the chance to enjoy such moments. Submarines and container ships are no longer being built at the shipyard, which once belonged to German steel and shipbuilding giant Thyssen. Nowadays, the company is building towers and steel bases for wind turbines used in offshore wind farms off the German coast.
End of an Era
On Dec. 11, 2009, the Frisia Cottbus became the final container ship to leave the Nordseewerke docks. It was the end of shipbuilding at the docks; the order book was empty. In 2010, steel company Siag, which is currently undergoing insolvency proceedings, acquired the business in order to gain access to the sea and to secure a chunk of the multibillion-euro offshore wind farm business.
Indeed, it’s not only the 780 remaining workers at the Nordseewerke for whom Germany’s “energy revolution” is the last hope. After years of decline, the German shipyard industry is facing a decisive transformation: It will only have a future if it succeeds in abandoning its past. The industry’s former customers, shipping companies, have been replaced by large electricity utilities and technology companies.
As part of its energy revolution, the German government is planning a complete phase-out of nuclear power by 2022. Between now and that deadline, offshore wind farms are expected to deliver a large share of the clean energy that is slated to replace atomic power. Special ships and towers will be needed as well as transformer platforms and foundations that can anchor the steel colossuses in depths of up to 40 meters (130 feet).