Conference Report Offshore: Experts plan wind without borders

With all EU member states now obliged to meet firm targets for renewable energy use, offshore wind is set to play a major role but, policy-wise, there is much to do and its success will largely hinge on full co-operation across Europe.

Three key areas dominated the debate of an open-forum discussion at the offshore wind power conference held by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). A seven-member panel discussed cross-border agreement in the EU in the shape of a single market for the trade of green electricity, management of conflicting interests for use of maritime real estate and what an offshore power grid might look like. The debate took place in Stockholm in September after the fourth European Policy Workshop on Offshore Wind Power Deployment, which issued a series of policy recommendations in its Stockholm Declaration (see box, below). The three earlier workshops were held in Egmond, the Netherlands, in 2004, Copenhagen in 2005 and Berlin in 2007.

The European renewables directive provides three flexible mechanisms that allow countries to help one another reach their national renewable energy targets by 2020: statistical transfer of green energy credits, joint projects and joint support. "Whether they will be used we will know in six months' time," said Reinhard Kaiser, head of the renewables department at Germany's federal environment ministry, referring to the requirement for all EU countries to present national action plans for reaching their targets by the end of next year. "Then we will know if there are sellers and buyers in the market," he added.

Joint projects will be in the form of government agreements, said Kaiser. He believes harmonisation of support across borders within the EU will be on a project basis. Flexible mechanisms, said Kaiser, can work between member states with different support structures.

Tomas Kaberger, director general of the Swedish energy agency, said cross-border trade of green power is the most efficient way of meeting the targets. "All member states are interested in optimising the way they reach the targets," he said. "It is better to develop wind power where the wind is blowing. It would be a bad idea to produce it where it is very expensive."

The greatest challenge, Kaberger pointed out, is to find countries willing to buy excess renewables credits from countries exceeding their renewables targets. He believes Norway is a potential seller. "There is an enormous benefit for countries with very different conditions," he said, whereas Norway and Sweden might be too similar if the planned common market for trade of green credits between the two countries is to work.

The panel agreed that, compared with earlier doubts about whether the targets were achievable by 2020, the new focus on finding enough buyers for surplus credits was a positive development.

From the UK government's department of climate change (Decc), Duarte Figueira, head of renewables deployment, said the UK intends to meet its targets using its own resources and through the renewables obligation mechanism. Any imports of credits into that mechanism would be on a case-by-case basis, he said. The UK has the furthest to go of all EU countries to meet its 2020 goal.

Peter Brun, head of government relations at Vestas, pleaded for clarity and market stability, a view echoed by EWEA's policy director, Justin Wilkes. The three flexible mechanisms are government led, said Wilkes: "We need a clear market and transparency." He saw no conflict between the need for swift production of wind energy to alleviate climate change and national interests focused on creating jobs and local economic prosperity, also in regions with poorer wind resources. A country buying credits rather than producing them at home has to accept it is also giving up jobs, security of supply and the CO2 benefits, he pointed out.

Spatial planning

Building a set of regulations for use of maritime space was seen as essential by the panel. "It is still very early days," said Figueira. He referred to maritime spatial planning as a tool for sharing of information. Brun agreed. "It is a first step," he said. "I would call it an instruction book for the machine room." Brun stressed that strong guidelines for maritime planning were essential for reducing investment risk: "I think low risk is key these days."

From the European Commission, cabinet member Tiago Cunha called for an integrated maritime policy and a new vision for eco-marine development and preserving the maritime environment. "It is not only you going into this geographical space," he told delegates. Wind power must compete with the fishing and shipping industries and avoid oil lines and electricity cable routes, as well as areas dedicated to offshore aqua-culture, he said.

Early offshore wind farm development has already provided much of the needed information for detailed spatial planning, added Brun: "It is actually now that member states need the guidelines. There is a lot of experience out there. There is no need to start at ground zero." Kaberger said the wind industry should step forward and play an active role in forging the guidelines: "The wind industry must disseminate its experience and good practice - the wind industry can help."

EWEA's Wilkes said national guidelines for use of maritime areas already exist or are being developed and asked whether wind developers should follow national or EU guidelines. Kaiser stressed that co-ordination between member states is vital and that a road map for maritime spatial planning is essential.

Wilkes said the economic argument for a massive expansion of the European grid to solve congestion points in the free flow of electricity from north to south and west to east had already been made. But Kaberger asked who should build the needed transmission lines for large-scale wind power and who should pay.

From the North Sea region working group of the European Network of Transmission System Operators, Teun van Biert said the billions of euros needed were simply not available. "We need to realise it step by step," he said. Decc's Figueira agreed. In the UK, "an awful lot of time has gone into a strategic energy plan", he said. The grid needs developing in a pragmatic, business-like way if it makes technical and economic sense to do so, he added.

Brun said it was time to get the grid moving. "It is feasible. It is a cross-border issue," he said. "I think the challenge is to get the right people in the same room and lock them up until they have a solution." He added: "We know what we have to do. It just has to be made to happen."

Compared with the cost of building offshore wind farms, Kaiser said, the cost of the grid is a minor element in the end price of electricity. "It affects the end price very little," he said. The benefits brought by building out a pan-European grid go far beyond wind energy alone, he continued: "We have the opportunity to connect markets that have not been connected before. At the same time we can connect very large sources of renewable energy." Brun agreed: "We need to get this discussion out of the offshore forum," he said. "I cannot see that we alone can make this happen. We are part of the solution." What is needed now, concluded Wilkes, is a coherent work plan.