Europe notebook: The growing arms race in offshore wind farms

Chaucer wrote: 'tide and time wait for no man.' The time for tide may be upon us.

(Stephen Rae is the former Group Chief Editor of INM, Ireland’s largest online and print media group. He serves on the board of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). He was appointed by the European Commission to its High Level Expert Group on Online Disinformation and is the publisher and editor of AML Intelligence, about global money laundering.)

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — An EU strategy released today reveals how the bloc fears being overtaken by China and India’s offshore energy production efforts.

Wind, tidal and wave energy are key components of the offshore plan which commits to spending €789 billion ($936.5 billion) and creating 62,000 jobs to double the EU’s renewables target and meet 2030 climate goals.

An added impetus of course is that Europe is — with 42% of all global offshore capacity —  conscious it is about to be overtaken by China where the report says “nearly half of global offshore wind investment in 2018 took place.”

“Offshore wind is a story of undisputed European technological and industrial leadership,” the European Commission strategy document proclaims — pointing out that the world’s first offshore wind farm was established back in 1991 at Vindeby on Denmark’s south coast.

“Europe is the global renewable offshore technology and industrial leader and should fully exploit this first-mover advantage,” the Commission argues.

The ultimate goal is that offshore wind capacity in the EU “should be multiplied by 25 times by 2050.”

“The Commission estimates that an installed capacity of 300 GW of offshore wind and around 60 GW of ocean energies by 2050 would be needed in the integrated, greener and climate neutral energy system of 2050,” the report outlines.

The North Sea — currently the world’s most populated wind farm — the Baltic, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea are all identified for greater deployment of wind turbines.

Germany holding the roving presidency of the European Council until the end of 2020 means the plan has the wind in its sails, so to speak, as Berlin reignited its stalled offshore plan last year.

Key will be wind farms which span national territories, so-called hybrid sites, based on the Kriegers Flak field between Germany and Denmark. The strategy outlines an ambitious project to develop more hybrid sites with their own offshore electricity bidding zones plugged into the entire EU electricity market.

Until relatively recently, wind farms have been dependent on fixed-bottom turbines, attached to the seabed, but new technology has seen the evolution of floating windmills many miles from shore. The first floating wind farm opened in Scotland in 2017, followed by the Portugal two years later. WindEurope, an industry group, estimated floating farms could employ 318,000 people and provide electricity to 145 million homes by 2030.

Back on shore, ports will have to be built as the various types of wind farms expand — requiring capacity to store blades which in some cases span more than 100 meters, deep water berths, and high capacity harbors. Acknowledging this the Commission says “grid development has longer lead times (typically 10 years or more) than the offshore power generation itself, highlighting the need for forward-looking grid investment.”

What is exciting are the plans to harness wave and tidal energy — both of which are more predictable than solar and wind. There are still obstacles, as the report says “significant cost reduction is needed for tidal and wave energy technologies to exploit their potential in the energy mix.”

While there is still some way to go before each reaches mainstream use, tidal is closest to commercialization, backed by almost €4 billion in investment (75% from private enterprise) since 2007.

Chaucer said that “tide and time wait for no man.” The time for tide may be upon us.