Read Part 1 of this series, an overview of the German cleantech boom

The big story for German cleantech in 2010 was solar power, as it has been since the German government amped up its feed-in tariff for solar in 2004 and almost singlehandedly turned it from cottage enterprise to mainstream industrial sector. Here are the German solar industry’s two most jaw-dropping stats for the year:

1. Over the course of 2010, Germany added 7,400 MW of solar capacity (roughly seven nuclear power plants’ worth) to its grid; this was about 1,300 MW more than all the installed solar power on earth as of 2005, at the start of the country’s extraordinary solar boom. Put another way, Germany added a 2005 world’s worth of solar energy to its grid — and then some — in 2010 alone.

2. It took about a quarter century for Germany’s grid to expand from zero to 1 percent solar power; it took one year — 2010 — to go from 1 to 2 percent.

All this sun worship notwithstanding, the industrial sector most excited by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unexpected commitment to eliminate nuclear power over the next 10 years is not the solar industry. No, the real buzz in German renewables right now is found on the docks of its heretofore declining port towns on the coasts of the North and Baltic seas. In places like Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven and Rostock, whose fortunes had been declining steeply since shipbuilding and other traditional port industries decamped wholesale for Asia in the 1990s, the future is in offshore wind energy, and that future looks brighter than ever.

If Germany is to phase out all 17 of its nuclear power plants by 2022 and reduce its reliance on dirty brown coal, it will need to convert more than half its grid to renewable power. (The official targets are 35 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050; the 2012 goal of 12 percent has already been met and substantially exceeded, with 17 percent of German electricity now produced by renewables.) And though solar and other smaller, decentralized plants will continue to play a role in this conversion, there’s mounting evidence — in the form of an increase to the feed-in tariff for offshore wind and a $7.2-billion government-backed credit line for the development of offshore wind parks — that the green grid’s workhorses will be turbines mounted in the open sea.

I arrived in Bremerhaven a few weeks back in the wake of a major wind industry conference to find the local mood buoyant indeed. The local economic development office (BIS) and the regional wind industry association (WAB) both handed out glossy pamphlets detailing the offshore wind business’ rapid growth in Bremerhaven — from next to nothing five years ago to dozens of companies and 1,000 jobs today, with another 500 expected to be added by the end of 2012. Final approval was imminent for a mammoth new harbor development — “Offshore Wind Port Bremerhaven,” a 200-acre port facility for the exclusive use of offshore wind developers, fronting 500 acres of industrial park. A smart new building for the Fraunhofer Institute’s advanced wind energy research arm was under construction, and a big new turbine testing facility — including an enormous wind tunnel for testing blade aerodynamics — was already up and running. The engineering giant Hochtief had anchored a prototype of its new wind turbine installation vessel in the harbor, and students were enrolled in courses focused exclusively on offshore wind engineering at the local technical school.

I paid a visit to Ronny Meyer, WAB’s managing director, and he traced the outlines of the emerging industrial hub in Bremerhaven. Germany’s near-term goal, he explained, was 10,000 MW of offshore wind by 2020, at least 4,000 MW of which had already been approved. Assuming an average turbine size of 5 MW, German companies would need to install a minimum of 200 turbines per year to meet their goals, creating more than 20,000 jobs in the process.

Particularly important, Meyer said, was that much of this new development would happen “outside the 20/20 window.” To date, offshore wind parks have been relatively modest affairs, operating in water no more than 20 meters (65 feet) deep and no more than 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) offshore. This next phase, however, would push further out to sea, into much deeper water. It would require new factories, new classes of skilled worker, a whole new industrial base for cities like Bremerhaven.

Out at the south end of the city’s port, I caught a firsthand glimpse of the awesome scale of this new business. WeserWind, a subsidiary of a German steel conglomerate called Georgsmarienhütte, had recently opened the world’s first serial production lines for offshore wind turbine tripods. These tripods are the bases on which the turbines themselves are mounted, and they are truly colossal in scale — the Colossus of Rhodes was barely 100 feet tall, after all, while these turbine bases are great steel-frame pyramids 150 feet high, each weighing as much as 1,000 tons. The pier out back of the WeserWind factory had to be reinforced with 900 concrete piles just to support the weight of the finished tripods.

The factory itself was a cavernous hangar fronted by two parallel doors three stories tall. Inside, welders worked at the joints of half a dozen tripods at once. Cascades of blue and red sparks spilled down scaffolds the height of midrise apartments. Imagine an assembly line making Eiffel Towers, and you begin to get a sense of the Seven Wonders scale of WeserWind’s operations.

At full speed, operating both production lines round the clock, WeserWind could make as many as 100 tripods per year; the factory’s neighbors made blades or assembled the turbines themselves. Other divisions and other companies further afield manufactured other key parts — a WeserWind brochure detailed 11 separate categories of parts, from transmission shafts to pile guides, that were manufactured by its sister companies. Once the assembly vessels were up and running, the industrial complex at Bremerhaven’s docks would be able to go from components to a wind turbine spinning in the howling North Sea wind in less than two weeks.

There was, to be pedantic about it, nothing provisional about this scene. As with solar power, so it now was with offshore wind: Germany was mainstreaming the business, scaling it up, rationalizing it. Here were new job categories, refined skills, better and more efficient industrial designs, factories and docks and vessels built to whole new specs. My guide at WeserWind joked that because he’d been working in offshore wind for five months, people called him a veteran. “It’s a bit of a pioneer time at the moment,” is how he put it.

This was very clearly not just a big deal but the start of something much bigger. Every government likes to flap its gums about fostering innovation, but the port of Bremerhaven is what it looks like if you actually pursue it. Like the Yorkshire mill towns in the first years of the 19th century or the steel towns of the Ohio Valley at the end of it, like Detroit in the 1920s or Silicon Valley in the 1970s, this is what the birth of an industrial revolution looks like.

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Germany stakes its cleantech future on stiff sea breezes
Germany has spent the last 5 years making solar power a mainstream business. It is poised to spend the next 10 years doing the same for offshore wind — and sh