Offshore Energy: Innovation meets Ambition

By Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy, (pictured)
Spring 2021

Innovation is an expression of hope in the future and a refusal to accept things as they are. This is the mind set we need as we tackle climate change: global reliance on fossil fuels must come to an end and the balance of power must shift towards a new age of renewables.

The scale of this change cannot be underestimated. Through the European Green Deal, we have set out a roadmap for different measures that can feed in to this overarching objective of reaching climate neutrality in Europe by 2050. Building on this target, EU leaders recently endorsed our medium-term ambition of achieving a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And innovation – doing things in better, new ways - will play a key role in getting us there.

One of the sectors leading the charge is offshore renewable energy. Aware of the enormous contribution that this sector should make to our decarbonisation ambitions, the European Commission published the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy last November. Therein, we have set our sights on 300 GW of offshore wind and 40 GW of ocean energy across the European Union by 2050. By 2030, our target is at least 60 GW of wind and 1 GW of tidal and wave energy capacity.To acheve this , we need to change the entire system surrounding offshore energy in Europe.

The strategy lays out our way forward for reaching these goals, reduce costs, and optimise our regulations. Significantly, it opens doors for individuals and companies to bring their best innovations to market. In this way, innovation is not only a matter of tools, it is also a matter of ideas. The strategy paves the way for a new way of thinking about our offshore ecosystem in Europe.

First, we need to move from borders to basins – enhancing cross-border cooperation to build on our collective natural resource is key for scaling up in a cost-effective way. The shift in thinking will also mean moving from concentrated to connected, ensuring the creation of infrastructure to enable the renewable electricity generated to reach the grid and the end user in the most efficient way possible. In this context, the European Commission has launched a proposal for the revision of the TEN-E regulation that includes a framework for onshore and offshore grid infrastructure development.

The offshore strategy will also usher in a shift in thinking from energy only to economy entirely. It is not just about the renewable energy industry, it is about growing a value chain stretching all the way inland, even to those countries without direct access to the sea. Taken as a whole, this evolution in the European offshore energy ecosystem will create greater support and opportunity for innovations to move from idea to market.

One of the most exciting aspects of this sector is that so many of the technologies are at such an early stage, affording so much scope for future development. As I write this, bottom-fixed offshore wind is the only technology which is at a mature commercial stage, however, floating offshore wind turbines are now being developed. There are many other technologies and advances at early stage development beginning to appear over the horizon that could bring significant momentum to the clean energy transition.

Wave energy, for example, has the potential to produce 10% of the world's electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Tidal energy, that is using tidal currents to drive underwater turbines, is another area where progress is being made towards harnessing this natural resource efficiently. We are also witnessing new hybrid areas at the intersection of renewables: floating offshore photovoltaic panels for example are in the pipeline. Direct current grid technologies, such as high voltage direct current converters and systems, can efficiently convey huge amounts of offshore renewable energy to land, enabling the seamless integration of high shares of renewables.

Writing about such innovative technologies can seem more dream than reality at times. But recently we have been inspired by real examples of how these technologies can take shape: for example the announcement of Danish plans to establish two offshore energy hubs – in the Baltic and North Seas – one of which will be an artificial island 80km from the shore. The intention is to create initial capacity of 5 GW with a view to subsequent expansion to provide a capacity of 12 GW in total.

This example from Denmark belies the position of Europe in the world of offshore energy. The EU is the global technological leader in offshore wind and ocean energies, an unsurprising fact if we consider our natural heritage of five sea basins and plentiful windy coastlines. In 2018 EU countries represented eight out of the top ten global exporters of wind turbines and EU companies currently hold 66% of the patents in tidal and 44% in wave energy.

This head start is an advantage if we want to become the world powerhouse of offshore technologies. This is the time to build on the political and technological momentum to lay firm foundations for an innovative offshore energy system. If we succeed, in the years to come when people think of offshore energy, they will think of Europe.