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Harnessing Europe’s green power plant

A hub of clean energy production is emerging in the North Sea.

For thousands of years the North Sea has been a vital route for commerce and fishing. In the last century, with its oil and gas deposits, it became indispensable for Europe’s energy supply. Now its strong winds and waves are making it a global pioneer in the energy transition. 

The 2022 Esbjerg Declaration promised to make the North Sea “the Green Power Plant of Europe”. Politicians at last year’s North Sea Summit in Ostend, Belgium, pledged to fast-track this commitment. The UK, along with eight other European countries, committed to dramatically boost offshore wind and support a mix of green technologies in the waters and on the shores of the region. This included increasing offshore wind targets – from 76 gigawatts (GW) to 120GW by 2030 and 260GW to 300GW by 2050. 

The next five years are going to be absolutely critical if we want to transform the region’s energy system at the rates required. Many important green projects are already underway in the region and those responsible for them are clear on the impact they will have. 

“In the North Sea, we’re seeing lots of low-carbon technologies working together, side by side, and offshore wind is certainly an important part of that,” says Andy Sykes, plant director at Siemens Gamesa’s Hull Blade Factory. The Hull site, which employs more than 1,000 people, has manufactured blades for offshore wind farms in the UK and globally. The team is working on the UK’s first 108-metre-long wind turbine blades for the 882MW Moray West windfarm, 22.5km off the coast of Scotland in the blustery North Sea. When complete, the wind farm will provide the equivalent of 1.3 million homes worth of power to the grid. 

In the wind sector, as well as increasing the number of turbines at sea, maximising the effectiveness of operations is key. “More than 30 years ago, the first turbines were installed offshore in Vindeby, Denmark. The blades were 17 metres in length. We’re now at 108 metres, which has meant huge advancements in the technology and increased electricity production as the longer blades can harvest more wind,” adds Sykes. 

The North Seas – the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the Irish and Celtic Seas – provide ample opportunity for development, but there is a global race to net zero and regulations and market conditions in the region need to work to support the supply chain. The EU’s Wind Power Package looks to address deployment issues, including simplifying auction design, streamlining permitting, derisking offshore wind investments and addressing market competitiveness. Importantly, this enables a European supply chain to meet customer demands locally. 

“The blades turning is one part of the equation, the other is transferring that power efficiently to shore,” says Lottie Edwards, platform package manager for Siemens Energy, who has been responsible for the fabrication of the two Offshore Transformer Modules (OTM) for the Moray West project. Each weighing the same as 12 blue whales, the solutions are around a third smaller in size than conventional power assets and use a modular design, to drive efficiency, speed, and approvals. In Europe, teams need to comply with 27 national implementations of European Grid codes, so solutions like this help to speed up a complex process.

“I feel a real sense of pride when we get to this stage in a project. Watching the OTMs transported by vessel, destined for the construction site is a great feeling,” Edwards says. “I sometimes imagine that one day I’ll fly over the North Sea, look out of the plane window, and see the solutions I’ve worked on out in the water. It makes you feel like you’re leaving a real legacy [which is] part of the UK’s energy network.” 

As well as expanding established technologies in the North Sea, newer solutions have appeared on its shores. Green hydrogen (produced through electrolysis using renewable sources) is essential to reduce emissions in sectors which cannot rely on pure electrification. In Kassø, Denmark, European Energy is building the world’s largest e-Methanol production facility. The plant will produce 42,000 tonnes of e-methanol each year and provide the majority of the offtake to shipping giant Maersk to power one of their container ships. 

“Worldwide, there are more than 50,000 vessels running on fossil fuels, and shipping accounts for nearly 3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we looked to convert the whole maritime industry, we’d need millions of tonnes per year,” says Holger Riess, project manager for Siemens Energy at Kassø. A 2018 study by the European Commission’s Monitoring, Reporting and Verification Scheme considered the ability of low-carbon fuels, produced from renewable energy, as a key power source. The findings showed 93 per cent of transport work could be covered by e-fuels with minimal reduction in capacity. 

Right now, clear enabling conditions are needed to drive demand for cleaner fuels and support the scaling up of a green hydrogen market. By 2030, Europe will need 20 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen to meet market requirements. 

“Projects like Kassø show us that green hydrogen is ready to go; we have ambitious targets, and we have the technology ready to deploy,” says Riess. “What we need now are the enabling conditions, the wider market demand and adoption to deliver at pace, so many more Kassøs can come online to meet our green hydrogen needs.” 

With a diverse green technology mix and innovative projects underway, the North Sea demonstrates what a multitechnology energy mix working in harmony looks like. The benefits are clear: cleaner energy and more green jobs. But more needs to be done to realise the opportunity. 

If pragmatic, delivery-focused policy is implemented, and the supply chain can respond, the green power plant that will emerge in the North Seas will be the blueprint for a sustainable future energy mix that could be deployed worldwide.  

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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