North Sea seaweed farming. Image credit: Amazon

European Countries Plan To Make The North Sea A Renewable Energy Powerhouse

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The North Sea is bordered by Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the UK. For many decades, the oil and methane gas beneath it have powered many of those countries, but now there is a new kid in town — offshore wind. This week, leaders from those eight nations, joined by leaders from the European Commission and Ireland, converged on Ostend, Belgium, to discuss ways to turn the North Sea into “Europe’s biggest green power plant.”

The Guardian reports the nations pledged to multiply the capacity of offshore wind farms in the North Sea by eight times from current levels by 2050. French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the plan together with the prime ministers of Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, and Luxembourg. Norway’s prime minister and Britain’s energy security minister also committed to building more wind farms, developing “energy islands” and working on carbon capture projects.

“We are unlocking our offshore energy ambitions,” Belgian energy minister, Tinne van der Straeten, said. “Coordination is absolutely essential. If each of the nine countries acts alone, we’ll collectively fail. Planning is at the core of everything.”

The nations are struggling to replace the cheap methane gas from Russia that powered much of their economies for decades, and also to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels as well. The plan is to boost their combined North Sea offshore wind capacity to 120 GW by 2030 and 300 GW by 2050.

In a press release, WindEurope said in addition to increasing offshore wind capacity, the nations need to develop the offshore energy grid of the future. Today, offshore wind farms traditionally deliver renewable electricity to only one onshore landing point.

To make offshore wind an energy grid for all participants, there will need to be offshore energy islands that serve as interconnection points between countries and deliver their electricity to multiple markets. An interconnected and meshed offshore wind grid will distribute electricity more efficiently, improve supply security, lower the costs for offshore wind and reduce its impact on maritime biodiversity, the industry group said.

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Supply Chains Needed For Offshore Wind

Policy declarations are all well and good, but it takes hardware to turn them into a reality. A group of more than 100 companies which will supply that hardware said in a statement on April 24, “We are a long value chain of wind farm developers and investors, wind turbine, electrolyzer, foundation and other component manufacturers, EPC contractors, vessel operators, ports, transmission system operators, and those who provide the equipment for grid infrastructure. All of these are essential to building, operating and integrating offshore wind in our energy system.

“Our industry is not large enough today to deliver the 9 governments’ commitments and meet the rising demand for renewable electricity and renewable hydrogen, not least from energy intensive industry. It needs to grow. We can make up to 7 GW a year of offshore wind today. By the second half of this decade we need to be making over 20 GW a year. We can deliver — we have so far — but there are already bottlenecks in the manufacturing of foundations, cables, substations, key equipment like transformers and switchgear and in the availability of installation, service and other vessels.”

In other words, it’s going to take money — a whole lot of money — to make the wind energy pledges agreed to in Ostend this week a reality. WindEurope points out that the expansion of offshore wind must be underpinned by investments in grids and ports. It says Europe needs to double its annual grid investments and channel €9 billion into the modernization and expansion of its port infrastructure by 2030.

Financing mechanisms, auction design, industrial policy, and electricity market design all are needed to unlock the investments necessary to make Europe’s offshore wind ambitions a reality. In 2022, not a single offshore wind farm reached final investment decision. Uncoordinated market interventions, price caps, and national clawback measures deterred investments. Governments must restore investor confidence and allowing for a combination of Contracts for Difference, Power Purchase Agreements, and merchant projects in their market design. In other words, the devil is in the details.

Above all, WindEurope says, national governments must support the creation of the skills necessary to realize the ambitious goals announced in Ostend. The offshore wind workforce in Europe needs to grow from 80,000 today to 250,000 by 2030. That requirement means creating training and reskilling programs, as well as changes to national school and higher education policies.

Sven Utermöhlen, chairman of WindEurope and CEO of RWE Offshore Wind, says: “Europe’s wind power is now needed more than ever. The North Sea Summit represents an important step towards increasing Europe’s energy security by supporting an accelerated development of offshore wind in the North Sea.

“For achieving the ambitious offshore wind build out targets, we need to massively ramp up European wind supply chains by target industrial policy measures and adequate support instruments. This needs to be complemented by auction designs fit-for-purpose, taking into account inflation developments for increasing the investment certainty of both manufacturers and developers and thereby, allowing the lowest financing cost. Also important is an accelerated grid build out, so we can maintain the competitiveness of energy-intensive consumers and provide secure and affordable energy for all in Europe.”

Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander de Croo, said recent developments meant energy was “more than ever a geopolitical topic,” and that the countries would standardize infrastructure to ensure North Sea wind farms could be built faster and cheaper.

Energy Security

Energy security is of vital concern to Europe, which has seen its supply of cheap Russian gas cut off with dire consequences for the nations’ economies. Somebody blew up the Nordstream methane pipeline, nobody knows who exactly, and if they do, they are being very quiet about it. Protecting thousands of wind turbines and hundreds of energy islands in the North Sea will not be easy and will require extraordinary cooperation between the countries involved — something that has not always been the case in the area. There have been reports of Russian spy ships in the North Sea recently.

Taking a cue from the Americans, the European leaders stressed that the investments needed to make their dream of an offshore wind hub a reality should benefit Europeans first and foremost. That means using components and materials sourced primarily from the 9 member nations. The investment needed to reach the goal of energy independence is estimated at nearly €900 billion.

The nations don’t want “you know who” (there are several possible candidates) to siphon most of that money away to advance their own goal of world domination. Fortunately, several European countries are world leaders in making wind turbines, but “you know who” is the biggest manufacturer of energy storage batteries, something an offshore power grid will need in abundance if it has any hope of being successful.

NIMBY & The North Sea

In Ostend this week, the French delegation said, “Offshore wind energy will probably be the main source of renewable energy production between 2030 and 2050, far ahead of solar energy and land wind farms.” Why would that be? We don’t know for sure, but we can hazard a guess. Wind turbines in the North Sea are out of sight of land. Therefore, they don’t stir up resistance from people who want to save the planet, but only if they don’t have to see solar panels and wind turbines out their windows.

That’s right. The war in Ukraine and the threat of massive sea level rise hold no terror for many, like the thought of huge turbine blades whizzing around on the horizon does. If they are all offshore, people can pretend they don’t exist and congratulate themselves for taking meaningful climate action by using renewable energy. There are just some sacrifices people shouldn’t be asked to make — like looking at the solar panels and wind turbines needed to effectively lower emissions from the thermal generation of electricity.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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