Offshore propels Belgium into wind premier league

OFFSHORE: Despite having the shortest coastline of any European country bordering the North Sea, Belgium is surging ahead with ambitious plans for offshore wind power on a scale that belies its size and geography. Paul Garrett reports.

The Belwind offshore wind farm in Belgium
The Belwind offshore wind farm in Belgium

Belgium has a mere 67-kilometre strip of coastline along the North Sea and has been without a federal government for a record 11 months. But on the back of its ambitious target - under the EU renewable energy directive Belgium needs to generate 13% of the energy it uses from renewable sources by 2020 starting from just 2.2% in 2005 - Belgium is powering ahead with large-scale offshore wind.

The country's clear offshore zoning policy is the key to its success, coupled with a green certificate system that rewards generators of power from renewable sources with certificates they can sell to electricity suppliers - who are obliged to buy them.

Belgium already is one of the top four EU countries for offshore wind energy capacity, according to the European Wind Energy Association. Total installed capacity in 2010 amounted to 733MW, the highest renewable-energy capacity in the country, and is set to climb to 4,320MW by 2020. Biomass and solar - starting at 618MW and 304MW respectively - will grow to a combined capacity of 3,791MW.

So far, six offshore wind projects - Thornton Bank, Rentel, Northwind (formerly known as Eldepasco), Norther, Seastar and Belwind - are either producing electricity or under development. All these sites are situated near the border between the Belgian and Dutch offshore zones and situated in a block of seven zones designated exclusively for the construction and operation of offshore wind farms.

Frank Coenen, chief executive of Belwind, Belgium's biggest wind power station, is convinced that - alongside close collaboration with local business partners - the government's creation of the dedicated zones has enabled the small European country to quickly climb to the forefront of offshore wind power.

"This is the secret of our success," says Coenen, who is also the founder of Incontrol, an offshore management group involved in the Northwind project and working with a consortium that will bid for the vacant seventh zone. "Shipping, fisheries and oil and gas pipelines are absent from the zones, so there is no conflict," he says.

The wedge of sea where Belgium's wind sector is now emerging has been depleted to the point of being of little use as a fishery or from an environmental viewpoint. But Coenen says that the seven wind farm projects that will eventually be built could actually help revive the marine environment there.

"At Belwind we are using rocks to protect the turbine foundations, which are built on a sandy sea bed, from scouring" he says. "And this over time will actually provide a revived habitat for marine life."

With the sites already permitted for use, all that is needed is a licence to build and operate. The seventh dedicated site will be let to a final consortium in due course. Even when all seven are in full operation, says Coenen, Belgium's offshore wind growth may not stop there.

"There is every possibility that another group of dedicated zones will be created in the north-western corner of Belgian waters," he says. Again this area, about 40 kilometres out from De Panne and Nieupoort, is away from shipping lanes and other conflicting interests.

Overcoming challenges

This year is crucial for offshore wind development in Belgium as a number of key issues are impacting the sector, according to Coenen. "There is, as in so many other places, a need for grid reinforcements, both in the short and long term," says Coenen. "This includes offshore connection points and onshore grid reinforcement, but also the creation of a North Sea grid," he says.

The onshore grid in Belgium is operating at capacity and this could be a constraint to growth in ports and for the development of enhanced coastal gas terminals. As well as receiving the electricity from the offshore wind schemes, Zeebrugge is also designated as one end of a new electricity interconnector to eastern England.

Coenen also points to the need for a continued stable support system to attract investment - the current scheme has remained unchanged since 2004 - and the planning of logistical support and space in ports to avoid bottlenecks during construction.

"I believe Ostend is becoming the best-equipped harbour for North Sea offshore operations. And it is lower cost than some privately operated ports over in the UK," he says. Belgium's ports were used to prepare the Belwind turbines before they were taken out to sea, using an innovative method Coenen refers to as "plug and play". In other words, the turbines are fully tested before being taken to the installation site.

"The next step is to test the turbines where they are manufactured and then take them direct to the installation site rather than via a 'home port'," he says. "This greater efficiency in supply-chain management and logistics will ultimately bring costs down and free offshore wind from the need for subsidies".

He believes these efficiencies will make offshore wind genuinely competitive with other generators as the industry rapidly matures.

With a current 2GW shortfall in Belgium's electricity capacity - soon to be exacerbated by the fact that 2-3GW of coal-fired and nuclear generation is due to be retired in the next few years - offshore wind has a big role to play in the generation mix. "Offshore wind may be an immature market now," suggests Coenen, "but for Belgium it is about to become a strategic asset".


The Belwind 1 wind farm at Bligh Bank is now generating electricity 46 kilometres out from the busy Belgian port of Zeebrugge, in the north of the designated zone and far enough offshore to be invisible from the sandy North Sea tourist beaches of Blankenberge and Knokke either side of Zeebrugge.

Belwind has a maximum capacity output of 330MW and is being built in two phases. The first 165MW phase started construction in August 2009 and its 55 Vestas V90 3WM turbines became fully operational in December 2010. The second phase is now in the pre-construction engineering stage.

The wind farm is serviced from a hotel ship leased by Vestas from Danish shipping company Esvagt on site with 32 crew and technicians working two-week shifts.

Belwind Offshore, a consortium bringing together Belgian retailer Colruyt Group, Dutch holding SHV, Flemish development agency Participatie Maatschappij Vlaanderen, Dutch investment firm Meewind and Dutch bank Rabo Project Equity, financed the project.

The European Investment Bank assumed an important part of the project-finance risk by granting EUR300 million towards the EUR614 million deal - the first time it got involved in an offshore wind energy financing deal.

All change at Norther

In May, Belgian renewable-energy firm Electrawind bought a 50% stake in the 360-450MW Norther offshore project, the fourth licensed site and most southerly of the six ongoing projects.

It bought the stake from Dutch utility Eneco Holding, which in February took over Air Energy, the company that had acquired the rights to the project in 2009.

The EUR1.2 billion wind farm should receive its final environmental permit next year, reach financial closure in 2013 and begin operation, potentially using 60 6MW turbines, in 2015.

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