35 giant offshore wind farms in just nine years: “We can and we must!”

Kristian Ruby is the Secretary General of Eurelectric, the federation for the European electricity industry, which represents 3,500 energy companies in Europe. He is confident that the EU’s huge offshore wind ambitions are realistic – even though it will be more of a challenge than most people can even imagine. During this momentous transition, the ports, and not least the port of Esbjerg, will play a crucial role.

It took over thirty years to build the first 25 GW’s worth of offshore wind farms that are currently installed in the seas around Europe.

But now things have to speed up. In November 2020, the EU Commission presented a new strategy proposal for offshore wind power. The long and the short of it is that we need to increase our ambitions dramatically to the role played by offshore wind in the European energy mix.

The target is for the EU to have the installations to produce 60 GW of offshore wind power in just nine years. And 300 GW in 29 years. This is not merely a matter of picking up the pace, it is a multiple-fold increase in installation speed. If we add the UK’s ambitions, we will get to 400 GW by 2050.

The idea is that green power will be the backbone of a new and more sustainable energy supply.

“This is really very positive,” comments Kristian Ruby, the Dane at the helm of Eurelectric, which brings together the energy companies of Europe and their national organisations, including Danish Energy.

So far the main focus has been on having the ambition, rather than how to achieve it in practice.

“We have quite a few challenges ahead that need solving,” says Ruby.

35 giant offshore wind farms in less than a decade

Ruby believes that if it comes off, the EU’s strategy will generate a lot of business activity, and many industries will enjoy a boom. That is a great starting point for this momentous transition.

“The scale-up is huge and it’s got to happen gradually. That’s why it’s a good idea to begin with 60 GW by 2030. But that’s also a challenge in itself. It means that in less than a decade, we need to establish 35 giant offshore wind farms in Europe. It’s doable, but it’ll require drastic changes,” explains Ruby.

In Ruby’s view, faster processes will be critical to the success of the strategy. He takes every opportunity to mention that when talking to decision-makers, and he does find that politicians actually listen. However, solving the problem is not entirely straightforward.
 

How do we secure the permits?

One of the first steps will be to secure the permits to build all these new offshore wind farms. That will be a challenge in its own right.

“As things are, it’s quite common for projects on offshore wind farms to have to allocate five, six or seven years to just getting the permits to build. It stands to reason, we can’t wait that long. Therefore, the political ambition must be reflected in changes to the rules reducing that delay. If we’re to achieve our target, we obviously can’t wait seven years on a permit, as it’ll also take time building the wind farm,” says Ruby.

In Ruby’s view, faster processes will be critical to the success of the strategy, and he takes every opportunity to mention that when talking to decision-makers. He does find that politicians actually listen. However, solving the problem is not entirely straightforward.

The fact is that every permit needs the input of many different stakeholders. Every country has its own maritime authorities that have various considerations and interested parties to protect, such as fishermen, NGOs and ordinary citizens who have the right to complain.

“I can talk about this issue for hours, because it’s a fundamental point,” notes Ruby.

The authorities need to have a mandate to issue permits. The number of objection rounds must be discussed, and they are anchored in a wide variety of places: planning legislation, the environment and much more across national borders.

“Companies have to jump through hoops to be issued with permits. There are examples of developers in Denmark working on projects for seven or eight years only to see them being closed down. If these are the conditions, we need to start again from scratch. Decisions must be made much faster. It would also make a marked difference, if companies could have one point of call, so we might reduce the number of objections,” explains Ruby.

In other words, a “one-stop shop” per sea basin, so everyone developing projects in, for example, the Baltic Sea would have a single point of call.

This is a good idea, even if it is challenging to implement, though Ruby finds politicians hugely receptive.

“This is an enormous shift that’s nothing like anything achieved in the past. The politicians are very keen. They see green transition, but they also see huge opportunities for growth adventures. Industry that’s flourishing, construction sector jobs. Activity levels will soar which is why we receive unstinting support,” he says.

When the decision was made to expand our commitment to offshore wind so dramatically, not all politicians may have been aware of the challenges that such a decision would involve.

“I think politicians are somewhat surprised that it’s our own political systems that are the main stumbling blocks. Now, they’ll have to do some clearing out, before we can make any headway,” notes Ruby.

All of Europe needs cables

But getting the permits is one thing, having the infrastructure is quite another: When you want to generate 300 GW of electricity offshore, the infrastructure needs to be in place. Europe’s electricity network is the backbone of this transition. The fact is that if electricity cannot be transmitted efficiently, there will be no green transition.

There is not a great demand for electricity on the North Sea. For this reason, the ambition is to build an electricity network, the size of the national grid in Germany – out at sea.

The power would be transmitted from the North Sea and the Baltic Sea to the large consumption centres which are found particularly in central and southern Europe. It will require an infrastructure that will predominantly consist of electricity cables.

According to Ruby, getting the permits will – once again – be the first challenge that we will have to overcome.

However, another challenge will be the requirement for innovation during the scale-up.

“We’ve never done that before,” says Ruby.

The question is: What would be the correct infrastructure?

Our current capacity is 25 GW. One wind farm generates between 200 MW and 1 GW. Till now and put in simple terms, we have run a cable from the sea and onto the shore. However, if we are to reach the target of 300 GW, the infrastructure cannot be made up of individual cables. The infrastructure must be optimised, allowing more electricity to be transmitted more efficiently. This is very much the idea behind the energy island which the Danish government has decided to build in the North Sea.

Connections will also be required for gas infrastructure and to Power-to-X plants.

“This will enable us to convert the electricity into other forms of energy, so we can use it more widely,” says Ruby.

In addition to permits and development of a new electricity infrastructure, we will also face a challenge in relation to capacity. Everything cannot be built at the same time.

“If we’ve got less than a decade to replicate what was constructed during the last thirty years, we’ll have to use every last ounce of our talents for coordination! The supply chain will come under massive pressure, if all North Sea countries try to build wind farms at the same time,” explains Ruby. Construction must therefore be coordinated and performed in phases.

Our current capacity is 25 GW. One wind farm generates between 200 MW and 1 GW. Till now and put in simple terms, we have run a cable from the sea and onto the shore. However, if we are to reach the target of 300 GW, the infrastructure cannot be made up of individual cables. 
 

Three major energy consumers

There are three large sectors of energy consumers which according to Ruby need turbocharging: buildings, transport and industry.

Within transport, Ruby sees good opportunities for all passenger cars and vans being powered by electricity in the course of the next thirty years. Hybrid buses may run on a mixture of electricity and hydrogen. It is as yet unclear how to make lorries and trucks more eco-friendly.

Denmark is far ahead making plans for the maritime sector. Electric ferries already exist for short distances, and it looks hopeful with Power-to-X technology for longer routes. It may also be possible to power aircraft with electricity for short flights.   

Buildings fall into several categories. Denmark has great success with district heating, though sections of the network are still powered by waste incineration plants. The solution may be a combination of energy sources. Biomass may be used to feed CHP plants, and then we need to consider how to use green power to heat up water for district heating. The individual homes may, for example, have heat pumps installed.

Industrial consumers hold enormous potential. Ruby refers to a new study indicating that 40 per cent of all natural gas is currently used by industry to heat up liquids to below 100 ⁰C. This can be done using green electricity.

“There are lots of opportunities for making our lives greener,” emphasises Ruby.

Ports play a crucial role in the value chain  

The value chain has a bottleneck which has attracted little attention so far: the ports. If there is insufficient port capacity, it will create problems in the rest of the value chain and delay the speed of installation.

“I don’t think that politicians gave this a great deal of thought when the decision was made. But the ports really mustn’t become a bottleneck,” says Ruby and he continues:

“Ordinary citizens probably associate green transition with solar panels and wind turbines, but the ports are of course a focal point where a wide range of the processes converge that make up the green transition.”  

Ships are refuelled. Freight supplies are loaded and unloaded on the quayside and transported to and from the ports. There are clusters of industry. Wind turbines are shipped to offshore wind farms.

“All this means that our ports will play a crucial role and that’s an issue which has been given too little attention so far,” argues Ruby.

Being at the centre of the green transition provides ports with huge opportunities. However, the ports will also have to strike while the iron is hot.

First and foremost, it is clear that the ports must have space. If a port is to participate in the construction of some of the 35 offshore wind farms over the next nine years, there must be plenty of space and logistics around the transport.

At the same time, according to Ruby, the ports will play a key role in the transition that is currently taking place in creating infrastructure for sustainable fuel for shipping.

The ports must also take steps to address their own carbon emissions, for example by providing green shore-to-ship power, allowing ships that are docked to switch off their own generators. Ruby believes that green power at the quayside is a benefit to business as well as society at large.

Another challenge is charging points. If a large consignment of Teslas or other makes of electric vehicles arrives at a port in Europe, there must be charging points so the cars can be charged. Otherwise the suppliers will choose a different port.

“If a port doesn’t manage to address its own carbon emissions during this process, it’ll have a problem. And if the port wants to play a role, it must avoid becoming a bottleneck,” says Ruby.

Port Esbjerg is ahead of the curve

Ruby remarks that the ports will have to develop a foundation for land-based transport infrastructure.

“The ports need to make headway, and a yellow flag has been raised,” says Ruby and he continues:

“But a yellow flag may also indicate opportunities.”

At this point, he commends Port Esbjerg.

“It seems that Port Esbjerg is ahead of the curve, and this provides huge opportunities. The next few years will see a massive increase in demand for shipping, so Port Esbjerg has positioned itself well with a green profile,” he comments.

And Ruby emphasises the necessity of someone taking the lead.

“It’s uplifting to see a port that’s so active in taking on a role and tries to be the first mover. In order to achieve the EU’s ambitious goals, we need people to make a commitment and take the lead,” he says.

“It seems that the port of Esbjerg is ahead of the curve, and this provides huge opportunities. The next few years will see a massive increase in demand for shipping, so the port of Esbjerg has positioned itself well with a green profile,” says Ruby.
 

We can and we must!

All in all, Ruby identifies a great many challenges that will have to be overcome. Yet he remains an optimist.

“When we list the challenges, one after the other, it’s hardly surprising that we feel overwhelmed. But we mustn’t overestimate the task. We can do it. History shows that we’ve achieved fundamental social changes before. It requires us to put our heads down and go into training camp as if we were to participate in the Tour de France. And then, of course, we’ve got to have permission and not be obstructed by a whole lot of bureaucracy,” concludes Ruby.

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