Helgoland is becoming the headquarters of three wind farms in the North Sea. Critics fear a decline in tourism. The island faces structural change.
Offshore park "Meerwind Sud/Ost," about two kilometers northwest of Helgoland. Image: Alexander Stein
Tourists can no longer live here. A worker in a neon yellow jacket steps onto the balcony of the 4-star hotel and lights a cigarette. His gaze wanders over the nocturnal North Sea and the dune, Helgoland’s offshore island. After a few puffs, he disappears into the room, and the bluish light of a television flickers through the curtains.
The operator of the WindMW wind farm has rented the Atoll Ocean Resort to house its employees – for ten years straight. That’s because the company is building a service and operating station at Helgoland’s southern harbor for the Meerwind offshore wind farm, which is currently growing 23 kilometers northeast of the "vacation and adventure island". The 80 turbines should actually be starting up now, but the wind, for which they are being erected here, is slowing progress.
"We’re hoping for better weather," reports technician Martin* on his way to a meeting at the harbor, "because from a wave height of one and a half meters it’s no longer allowed to cross over to the platforms by ship for safety reasons." His stay would therefore be extended by about a year. Martin prefers to remain anonymous; his colleagues have advised him to do so. "Nothing is going on here illegally," he assures, "but I’m a small worker and easily replaced."
And he likes what he does. Just look at Chernobyl and Fukushima, he says. Wind power, he says, is a good thing. "What’s more, it’s free once the expensive turbines are installed," the burly man adds, burying his hands in his jacket pockets. Only at wind force 10 would they possibly have to be switched off to avoid overloading. Maintaining the nearly 150-meter-high wind turbines is not favorable, especially at sea. Exposure to waves and salt is high and the technology young. Engineers expect several malfunctions a year.
"Helgoland has a gigantic advantage," explains mayor Jorg Singer, "from here you can react quickly to damage or problems." In addition to WindMW, RWE (Innogy) and Eon (Climate & Renewables GmbH) also want to take advantage of this, with their Nordsee Ost and Amrumbank West parks, which are a little further away, to supply electricity from 20. The total capacity of the three power plants is more than 850 megawatts. The "south harbor area" is shared by the companies, an area that some environmentalists believe should have remained undeveloped.
"Nature is suffering because of the sealing of the area," complains ornithologist Ulrich Kieschnick, "before, there was salt vegetation there, created by wave action and splash water." It had served as cover and food for certain birds like the horned lark.
A welcome guest from Morocco
Kieschnick works for the Jordsand Association, which maintains one of the colorful lobster stalls at Helgoland’s inland harbor. Inside, a ceiling-high replica of the red bird rock stretches out. Stuffed gannets balance there on cone-shaped eggs and artificial birdcalls next to guillemots and kittiwakes. "A house swift from Morocco has been spotted!" Neighbor Hans Stuhmer rushes into the lobster shack. "Can I have the book?" Ulrich Kieschnick hands him the thick bird guide over the softwood counter. The news about the "first sighting" of Apus affinis spreads quickly all over the island. The numerous amateur ornithologists inform each other about rarities by radio or cell phone.
Another characteristic of Helgoland will be lost, Hans Stuhmer suspects: the silence. Helgoland has been largely free of combustion engines, but because of the construction sites for the offshore project, trucks have been running regularly for some time – even during the short span when day visitors are on the island. "There weren’t that many engines even during the 1952 construction," recalls Stuhmer, former head of the Helgoland Outer District of the Tonning Water and Shipping Authority.
It gets noisy
The greatest danger for tourism, however, is the noise of the expected helicopter traffic for the maintenance of the wind turbines. In addition to boat moorings and elevators, the turbines have winch-down platforms onto which materials and workers can be lowered. Stuhmer fears 20 to 30 takeoffs and a corresponding number of landings per day. "Then our south beach is dead," he predicts. The island would not tolerate more than 900 takeoffs a year and just as many landings – that is, an average of about 2.5 flights a day, confirms Mayor Singer.
However, the mayor sees "a great opportunity" for the community in Helgoland as an offshore base. The population will grow as workers and their families move in, and business tax will flow in. "The prerequisite for trade tax is being in the black," Hans Stuhmer counters, "but in wind power, everything is written off." And the promised new work for islanders will not be a demanding one. "I don’t know anyone who knows anything about wind power!" says Stuhmer.
For tourism to work, he says, the island needs to look like a park – from the south harbor to the youth hostel. "When you reach it now, you think you’re coming to an industrial site," criticizes the Helgoland resident. "Complete cheese," Singer says, "offshore is good for our tourism." There will be a public center called "Fascination Offshore," he says, and sightseeing flights over the wind farms will also be offered again soon. The "Sansibar" located in the lowlands has recently expanded its name: "Sansibar Offshore Corner" is now written on the door. English is expedient here: many workers come from Denmark and Scotland.
Fusel Rock" drawer
"The new foothold offshore" means "a structural change," says Mayor Singer. But he is glad that Helgoland has escaped the "fuselage rock drawer".
Another idea to upgrade Helgoland divided the population in the summer of 2011: marrying the dune and the main island by filling in the shallow break. A Hamburg investor wanted to create new living space there, and even a casino was under discussion. By a narrow majority, the citizens voted against it. "This decision is binding for two years," Mayor Singer says with a smile, "they are over now!" He favors "the flushing out," saying it is good for "demographic change," but, he adds after a short pause, the islanders should also be allowed to decide in the event of a new push.
Hans Stuhmer doubts the benefit of a connection. Investors always profit and the island comes away empty-handed – he has been observing this for decades. "Helgoland is a noble whore," he grumbles, "everyone wants to go over and no one wants to pay." With wind power, he says, they’ve "screwed them again," while it’s precisely the promised jobs on the island that would be needed: parents who can’t afford to send their children to the mainland for high school graduation are leaving the island, "so we’re bleeding dry!" Fewer than 1,500 people still live permanently on the island.
The balance is tipping
Tourists should not be scared away, he said. "Ninety percent of guests want nature," the islander says, "and that nature is being trampled." Bird lover Kieschnick demands that the balance be maintained: "If you break something on Helgoland, you have to fix it on Helgoland, too."
The interest of visitors, however, is not limited to the original, reports the white-bearded Kieschnick with the green vest. Many of the tourists he takes to see the seals and grey seals on the dune ultimately find the yellow-necked turtles released in the miniature golf pond more exciting than the nature of the island.
Already, part of the nightly view from the uplands is the constant blinking of the wind turbines. Every five seconds, the light of the lighthouse wipes across the signs of the times. The economic life of the offshore turbines is 25 years, says Mayor Singer. They are only built because of the subsidy conditions. Aware of this good fortune, he adds, "We have the energy turnaround behind us. Germany still has it ahead of it!"
* Name changed