Next Ecology in the North Sea?

Four critical questions for getting towards large scale wind energy production on the North Sea.

Anne-Mette Jørgensen

At the end of April, a new vision for energy production on the North Sea was presented at IABR–2016: An Energetic Odyssey. For anyone visiting Rotterdam, I’d highly recommend to go and see it.

An Energetic Odyssey is a highly inspiring vision of how very large scale offshore wind farming in the North Sea could help us achieve the climate goals of an 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Its key elements are:

– 25,000 wind turbines of (on average) 10MW in the North Sea – in addition to the 5,000 turbines that have already been planned for – producing 1200 TWh of electricity (which is around 30% of the estimated total North Sea energy demand in 2050 and 90% of electricity demand);
– the parks are located relatively far offshore (beyond the 12 miles zone, except for the parks already planned for), in order to reduce impacts on bird migration and disturbance of the coastal landscape (open horizon);
– they will take up an area of 57,000 km2 – approximately 7.5% of the total North Sea – and potentially adding >6 km2 of hard substrate to the North Sea ecosystem (assuming that each turbine adds 251 m2 of hard substrate), depending on the design and construction.

The creators of the Energetic Odyssey do emphasize that it is a vision, not a blueprint. However, the reality is that offshore developments in the North Sea are probably needed at this scale, if we want to meet the climate goals agreed upon in Paris, without becoming heavily dependent on import of energy from countries with excessive amounts of unproductive land. Underlying the vision are ambitious assumptions in terms of energy savings and (renewable) energy production onshore, so it’s not that the creators have underestimated the potential of onshore renewables or energy production more generally. The size of the task we have set out to perform in Paris simply is enormous – and the risks associated with failure are at best equally forbidding.

This perspective raises a number of questions:

– How do we ensure that large-scale development of offshore wind (and other forms of renewable energy) is not hindering and being hindered by other users of the sea

Though large-scale offshore wind parks might actually facilitate regeneration of fish stocks and increase the value of biomass production per square meter of seabed, it doesn’t seem very likely that North Sea fishermen will quietly accept the loss of 57,000 km2 of fishing grounds. Certainly not if this area will be additional to effective fisheries management measures being implemented in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the OSPAR region (which are aiming for 10% of coastal and marine areas to be protected in 2020). If the allocation of space for each offshore wind farm is preceded by long negotiations with other users, there is no way that we are going to install anything close to 300GW of offshore wind by 2050 – unless we allow it to happen at the cost of MPAs. Could we instead find a way to give (former) fishermen a stake in wind farms that would allow them to earn a living within these areas and thereby increase the social and economic value of seabed allocated to wind farms? Or would we rather use (floating) wind farms as protection for MPAs? And what other opportunities are available for multi-functional use of this huge amount of space?

– How do we raise the funds needed for the plusminus €80 billion investment needed to realize developments of this size? And what is the business model that will ensure that not only private investors, but also taxpayers get a proper return on investment?

Unlike with oil and gas production, the government is usually not a shareholder in offshore wind, though the construction of offshore wind is partly paid for by taxpayers and/or consumers. How are these investments going to pay back to government and taxpayers on the long term? Will consumers get energy (almost) for free after some expensive years? And how do we keep a steady flow of investments despite ever-tighter government budgets? Most recently, we have seen the Danish government starting to revise their otherwise consistent, long-term scheme of subsidizing offshore wind and other renewables, because the costs have become ‘too high’. The result may be a sudden crisis in the Danish wind industry, with potentially intense repercussions in the wider offshore industry across the North Sea region and a reduced interest in private investments in offshore wind. Raising the amount of money needed for such large scale, capital-intensive developments demands a very stable investment climate and possibly a North Sea-wide regional funding structure, to ensure optimal planning and timing of developments.

– How do we ensure that we plan and organize the development of offshore wind in a way that minimizes (societal) costs and maximizes (societal) benefits, including the creation of new jobs in the countries surrounding the North Sea?

Countries that have succeeded in creating a consistent, long-term policy to support offshore wind have also succeeded in building a serious industry around this development. If we do it right, it should be possible to create thousands of new jobs in the offshore sector; more than enough to compensate jobs lost in the oil and gas sector. But if we get it wrong, there is a risk that only very few jobs are created in our own countries, as we simply import technology from elsewhere. Until now, the North Sea is a front-runner in offshore wind, but other regions are rapidly gaining speed. Another risk is the creation of a premature, overly expensive dependency on offshore wind, while other types of renewables might develop to become much cheaper and with less negative impacts over the next couple of years.

– How do we ensure that the development of offshore wind enhances rather than reduces ecosystem services? 

In contrast to many onshore developments of renewables, offshore wind does have a potential of adding value to marine ecosystems rather than destroying them: adding hard substrate (artificial reefs) and creating large areas where only limited human activity is allowed, could have a positive impact. However, the size of this impact and the risk of negative feedback-loops – in the sense of an intensified use of other areas, including sensitive natural areas, which are now up for protection, very much depend on location, design and management of the wind farm areas. The current single-use, cost-per-MW-focused approach is probably the approach that is least likely to guarantee added ecological value. Instead, we need to create an approach to planning and tendering that maximizes incentives for designs that enhance ecosystem services (biodiversity, biomass production, coastal protection, etc.), allow for safe ways of harvesting the riches of our sea within ‘energy-production areas’, and create long-term commitments from investors and various groups of users to develop and manage this valuable space in the most eco-effective manner.  

Anne-Mette Jørgensen is an Independent Consultant at Eco-Effective Strategies and Associate at JBR.

IABR20160423039An Energetic Odyssey 2050 at IABR–2016. Photo: Hans Tak