European Offshore Wind Conference: Confidence around every corner

Attracting almost double the number of delegates expected, the vitality of the offshore wind market was on full show at the recent European Offshore Wind conference in Stockholm.

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Declarations were made, deals were done and the challenges ahead thoroughly debated.

The European wind industry has pledged to deliver enough wind turbines, components, foundations, and research and development efforts to reach 150 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. The declaration was made at the European Offshore Wind conference and exhibition, held last month in Stockholm, and was signed by companies ranging from manufacturers to developers and suppliers. In return, the industry wants policy makers across Europe to tackle grids, planning and other obstacles to harnessing the continent's vast offshore wind resource.

With proposals for more than 100 GW at various stages of development in European waters, capable of meeting 10% of Europe's power needs, the tone of the event was upbeat. It attracted over 4800 people - almost double the number originally expected. Overflow areas had to be hastily arranged for many of the 23 sessions to accommodate delegates unable to fit into the conference halls, with practical sessions on project delivery, wind turbine foundations and supply chain attracting most interest. Meantime, the exhibition hall was buzzing.

"We have a booming industry. We have massive developer interest. Most important of all, we have huge energy potential," said European Wind Energy Association (Ewea) president Arthouros Zervos. The sector will install over 1GW in 2010, supplying 0.3% of EU electricity, and the market for offshore wind will be worth EUR2.5 billion, he said. Ewea's target is 40 GW by 2020 from offshore wind, supplying up to 4.3% of EU electricity. The target, requiring an annual growth of 28%, is not over ambitious, said Zervos, adding that onshore wind grew around 32% a year from 1992 to 2004. The later target of 150 GW for 2030, requiring EUR16.5 billion of annual investments, would result in offshore wind providing up to 16.7% of EU electricity demand.

Achievable target

But there is much to be done. "The turbines needed for the future are not the turbines that are in service on land. ... We have not designed the direct current grids yet to carry the power around the North Sea. ... We have not got the ships," said Eddie O'Connor, CEO of wind developer Mainstream Renewable Power. Andreas Nauen, CEO of turbine manufacturer Siemens, agreed. A turbine factory and the ships take two years to build, and developing a new turbine takes three, he said. "But they can all be done if we decide to do this now."

In the midst of an economic and environmental crisis, these are exciting times for the wind sector because it holds the solution to both problems, said Zervos. Ian Marchant, CEO of UK utility Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) added that, despite recent claims by politicians that the green shoots of economic recovery are appearing, Europe is still in recession. "The answer to get out of recession is investment-led growth," he said. "The way to a politician's heart is to convince them that their voters' jobs are in our industry in future, not in the old carbon-intensive industries of the past."

Employment opportunities

The politicians are paying attention. Ministers from the British, Irish and Swedish governments underlined the importance of offshore wind in helping meet EU goals and in creating new industries and jobs. David Kidney, from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, invited businesses to set up in Britain to share in the £60 billion worth of offshore wind development planned over the next few years, £15 billion of which is in the supply of cables and infrastructure to connect offshore projects.

But with finance being a major challenge, EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs stressed that member states need to provide strong support mechanisms as part of their national renewable energy action plans. These are required under the EU renewable energy directive and are due to be submitted to the commission by June next year. The plans will set out how each country proposes to meet its share of the EU target of 20% of energy from renewables by 2020. "For the foreseeable future, an extra incentive will be required to convince investors when it comes to offshore wind energy," said Piebalgs.

While the UK and Irish ministers reported recent increases in support for the sector, Sweden's deputy prime minister, Maud Olofsson, instead pointed to the flexibility in the directive that allows countries to meet their targets outside their own borders through joint projects with other member states. This way other countries could provide incentives for wind farms built in Swedish waters without giving added costs to Swedish consumers.

"The potential for offshore wind is not evenly distributed between the member states," explained Olofsson. "Maybe offshore wind could be a testing ground for joint projects mentioned in the directive. Sweden is most interested in being part of a pilot project in this area."

The Republic of Ireland, with its huge resource, also sees itself exporting electricity from wind to continental Europe. Energy Minister Eamon Ryan explained that next year the country will reach its 15% renewables target. The 2020 goal of 40% will be met mainly by onshore wind. "But the real potential lies in our seas. The 40% target is not the limit of our ambitions," he said. "We have to be aiming for a 100% target and be a net exporter of clean energy to the rest of Europe." This demands an integrated, interconnected EU electricity market. The planning and funding must start now, he said.

Network planning

EWEA's new 20-year offshore network development master plan proposes grids are built by 2020 and 2030. This would create a "truly pan-European electricity super highway," said Zervos. "Our recommendations are based on the 11 offshore grids currently in operation, and adapting where necessary the 21 others being considered by the grid operators in the North and Baltic Seas."

Integration into the market and grids was a constant theme at the conference. "Grids is where it's all at," O'Connor said, adding that in parts of Denmark last year the system coped at times with 100% electricity from wind without a single curtailment: "Why? Because they were linked to the grid in the German market - grids compensated for it, grids spread the load out."

Confirming Brussels' commitment to grid integration, Piebalgs said: "The European Commission is an ally you can count upon when it comes to helping offshore wind." Over half of the EUR565 million of support allocated to offshore wind under the EU's Economic Recovery Plan is targeted at the grid problem, he reminded delegates.

But Konstantin Staschus, from the recently created European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), explained that his members are hard pressed to build the offshore lines needed. "They will be even harder pressed to integrate the enormous amounts of power that will eventually land at the shores into their onshore grids," he said, because of the "not in my back yard" or "nimby" effect. "No matter where we are in Europe we are having trouble getting overhead lines permitted." And the extra costs of putting cables underground runs foul of the regulators, he added.

European strategy required

"Grid consent is the critical path item," agreed Marchant. SSE has been trying to secure consent for a replacement transmission line to take electricity from wind farms in the north of Scotland to the areas of demand in the south. "In seven years we have not yet got permission," he said, and urged transmission operators to take the initiative and work out a pan-European strategy for the grid, because "if it's left to local politicians, they will duck, dive and dodge to avoid making the decision because they will be unpopular in their constituencies".

ENTSO-E's Staschus, however, argued that grid planning comes secondary to generation. "How does it hang together not just in terms of terawatt hours in balancing (the system), but how does it hang together each hour, each quarter hour?" he said. "The longer into the future we look, especially beyond 2020, it is going to be more and more difficult to deal with." Under plans being considered by the industry and transmission system operators, a European supergrid would enable hydro-electric storage capacity from Norway to balance variable generation. "Eventually there will be no more power storage hydro to tap into," he warned. "We need a lot of research and development, which we are gearing up to."

Demand-side management also has a role, Marchant said, with changes afoot. Europe's electricity utilities have so far served unchecked demand, all priced the same. But with smart metering, pricing will change and consumers' feedback on the costs of their behaviour will be more accurate. And, technology will change with electric vehicles providing millions of storage points and sources of interruptible load. "Then you start thinking about your energy system quite differently from the big unchecked demand model of the last 50 years," Marchant said.

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