Opinion: Europe must protect offshore wind from sabotage as it shifts from Russian energy

After two European countries revealed this week that a Russian ship attempted to scout their wind farms in the North Sea, what is the security situation for offshore wind and what protective measures must be taken to protect critical infrastructure from espionage or sabotage?

It is time to increase measures to prevent espionage and sabotage of offshore wind, argues Stefan Thimm

A Russian ship scouted Dutch wind farms in the North Sea in November and a similar incident occurred near a Belgian wind farm in the same waters that month, representatives of both countries said this week.

According to information from the Dutch military intelligence service, attempts by Russian actors to understand and disrupt the organization of the Dutch energy supply in the North Sea have been noticed in recent months. 

However, the attempt was unsuccessful. The ship entered Dutch territorial waters and was escorted out again by the Dutch coast guard and navy. 

It is suspected that Russia is secretly mapping infrastructure and planning acts of sabotage.

Offshore wind farms are part of the critical infrastructure of Germany and their function as energy producers - and thus their safety - is in the overriding public interest. 

'Prime target'

The German government has set the goal of expanding offshore wind energy to 70GW by 2045

This objective should, among other things, enable independence from Russian energy and it undoubtedly makes offshore wind farms a prime target for Russian espionage and sabotage operations.

Reports of various sightings of supposedly Russian submarines in foreign waters, the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in September last year and the attempt to spy on wind farms in the Netherlands give cause for concern. 

There are increasing signs that Russia is planning and carrying out acts of espionage and sabotage.

Cyber attacks

It is striking that, contrary to most forecasts, physical attacks or their preparations are actually taking place. 

In recent years, the threat of cyber-attacks in particular has grown and all actors – whether states or companies – have begun to prepare themselves for this threat and increased their protective measures accordingly.

The German cybersecurity agency, the BSI, has built up capacities to advise and support operators of critical infrastructure. 

The country's National Cyber Defence Centre and the emergency response teams that issue alerts to companies are also good institutions. 

Now read: North Sea countries on alert after Russian ‘spy ship’ scouts wind farms

Increase vigilience

But our protection is insufficient. We must not sit back. 

We need to monitor the situation closely in order to identify any anomalies and, if in doubt, be able to intervene quickly.

In general, it is difficult to estimate what economic or infrastructure damage a cyber-attack could cause, however, we know that large critical infrastructure utilities are well protected today. 

Financial and human resources for complex IT security are available and this applies to the operators of offshore wind farms in Germany too.

Step up surveillance 

The particular challenge now is that there are increasing signs of planning and carrying out of classic physical attacks, e.g. with explosives, and we must find answers to them.

The ship spying on Dutch wind farms was also spotted in Belgian waters last November. It had turned off its mandatory AIS radio, which is supposed to allow authorities to identify and locate ships.

According to the Belgian justice minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, the government has decided to invest several million euros in purchasing software to improve the tracking of such activities. In addition, video surveillance is to be strengthened.

The German government should also examine measures to increase protection off the country's coast. 

An AIS requirement for all ships and the installation of monitoring technology on offshore wind farms are good approaches as a first reaction to the growing threat and such measures can only be the beginning. 

Prevent espionage and sabotage

We must aim to prevent such espionage or sabotage missions from penetrating vulnerable areas of our critical infrastructure. 

In view of the war of aggression against Ukraine – and the associated desire of the federal government to develop an energy supply independent of Russia – this particularly applies to offshore wind farms.

The German government must set priorities and make it clear that it is prepared, under all circumstances, to protect our critical infrastructure from acts of espionage and sabotage.

Work with Europe

The German offshore wind industry is ready to develop strategies and solutions with political decision-makers. 

It is important that this does not take place in long and overly bureaucratic processes and that any need for action is identified and tackled together under high pressure. 

The consistent Belgian approach shows that this is possible. Even closer European cooperation in securing our offshore wind farms is the order of the day.

Stefan Thimm is managing director of BWO, the federal sssociation of offshore wind farm operators in Germany