Europe eyes joint underwater wind grid to boost energy security

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OSLO/ESBJERG – Northern European countries are discussing plans to create a common power grid under the North Sea to connect future offshore wind farms as they seek to boost energy security, but the ambitious proposal is colliding financial and regulatory challenges.

European nations have announced promises to build dizzying amounts of offshore wind farms, spurred in part by the need to reduce heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas following its invasion of Ukraine.

“The more interdependent we become in Europe, the more independent we will become from Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a May visit to the Danish port of Esbjerg, used by major wind turbine manufacturers Vestas and Siemens Gamesa. .

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“We all know that producing green energy is great. But if you really want to use it, you need a grid and there you have to step up,” she said.

However, it’s unclear how massive amounts of green power can be traded across borders without overloading already strained terrestrial networks or creating a spaghetti bowl of cables on the seabed.

One idea being explored is offshore grids, with new wind farms connected to hubs, or energy islands, and linked by interconnecting power cables that supply multiple European markets instead of just one.

The Danish grid company Energinet is already planning to connect two energy islands in the Danish parts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea with Germany and Belgium.

Discussions are also underway with Norway, the Netherlands and Germany on future projects, said Hanne Storm Edlefsen, head of energy island development at Energinet.

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JOINT WIND FARMS

Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium announced plans in mid-May to build 150 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2050, up from around 15 GW today, a jump multiplied by 10.

“What is completely new is that we see the development of renewable energy as something best done together,” Danish Climate and Energy Minister Dan Jorgensen told Reuters.

A North Sea grid saves money and helps manage generation volatility, with wind generation varying by location but often following a predictable pattern, said Chris Peeters, CEO of the grid operator of Belgian transport Elia.

“A lot of these weather phenomena, like the wind, tend to cross Europe – you see them moving from the Irish Sea to the North Sea and out to the Baltic,” he told Reuters.

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An offshore energy hub also allows the wind energy produced to remain offshore until it is needed by consumers onshore.

“We have this island, it collects the wind around it and then it brings it ashore, or it brings it to another hub which then brings it ashore in the country that has the demand at that time- there,” Peeters said. .

This avoids overloading the onshore grid, a common problem, with Germany regularly paying Danish wind producers to turn off their wind turbines for a period of time to limit imports and avoid overloading its grid.

WHO WILL PAY ?

Still, building a mesh network will take at least a decade to build and will likely cost more than a double-digit billion dollars, industry sources told Reuters.

There is currently a hybrid cable in service in Europe, linking several wind farms in the Baltic Sea to Denmark and Germany, operated by Energinet and the German grid operator 50Hertz, of which Elia owns 80%.

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Hybrid projects combine generation and transmission elements and connect two or more markets, while existing offshore wind farms traditionally send their electricity ashore via individual cables to a single country.

It is also unclear who will invest in and develop these projects which involve multiple countries and in some cases include non-EU Britain.

“The big problem is that all parties need to be incentivized to join in the development of hybrid projects and that is currently not the case,” said Ulrik Stridsbaek, regulatory affairs manager at Orsted.

Current regulations do not allow for the necessary cost and revenue sharing that would incentivize all parties to invest, he said.

Despite this, Orsted, which has built around a quarter of the world’s offshore wind farms, sees hybrid projects as crucial to unlocking the future potential of offshore wind.

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“We think hybrids can be a huge saver of time, money and hassle,” Stridsbaek told Reuters.

NO ROCKET SCIENCE

Several more hybrid interconnectors are planned across Europe, but the main obstacle is the lack of a clear European regulatory framework, according to Giles Dickson, head of industry lobby group WindEurope.

“It makes no sense to continue to develop offshore wind to the huge volumes governments are now committing to, if you’re trying to do it only via point-to-point radial grid connections,” he said. told Reuters.

Still, these could be the ideal short-term solution as Europe seeks to rapidly expand its offshore wind capacity to replace Russian fossil fuels, said Wood Mackenzie researcher Soeren Lassen.

“I don’t know if mesh networking will be the short-term solution in the 2020s,” he told Reuters.

Legal hurdles remain and risk delays, he added.

WindEurope’s Dickson argues there is no need for delay if the European Commission has said what the regulations might look like.

“It can be done very quickly if the political will is there,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

(Reporting by Nora Buli in Oslo and Stine Jacobsen in Esbjerg; editing by Gwladys Fouche and Emelia Sithoe-Matarise)

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Mary I. Bruner