BY heather johnstone

The recent backing for legislation by the European Parliament may result in a large boost in investment in renewables, such as offshore wind. Europe’s potential is huge and renewables could play a key role in securing energy supply and meeting carbon reduction targets, but can it overcome its connection challenge?

The possibility of the European Union (EU) reaching its ambitious target of 20 per cent of total energy needs from renewables by 2020 took a step in the right direction last month when members of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee gave their backing to legislation that aims to encourage greater investment in renewable energy.

Greenpeace’s vision of a North Sea mega electricity grid interconnecting offshore winds farms with the potential to generate 68 GW
Source: C.Webb
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The report, authored by Luxembourg’s Green MEP, Claude Turmes, takes a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Although there are no changes to the individual targets set for member states by the European Commission (EC), the report does recommend that the EU sets interim targets for each member state, backed by the threat of financial penalties of up to €110 ($156) per MW. However, member states that overachieve could receive a financial award of between €30-40 per MW.

Although EU member states are expected to back the main elements of the ITER Committee vote, Turmes may struggle to convince them of the need for such a penalty regime to drive renewables growth.

In contrast, he is unlikely to face problems in getting them to sign up to the flexibility mechanisms outlined in the report. Under the plans, member states would be able to engage in joint renewable projects and register increases as progress towards their individual targets. This means the percentage of renewable energy increase achieved in each project would be shared between the participating member states based on the level of participation of each country.

One renewable energy source that is likely to attract this greater investment is wind power, which is head and shoulders above the others in relation to commercial deployment – currently the EU has an installed capacity of 57 GW, which roughly corresponds to three per cent of the Union’s total power consumption. According to the European Wind Energy Technology Platform, which is one of the European Technology Platforms, wind power could provide up to 28 per cent of the EU’s electricity consumption by 2030, corresponding to a total of 300 GW. This bold statement is of course dependent on wind farms being better connected to existing electricity grids, plus the building of a new grid to exploit the potential of offshore wind.

The Turmes report indicates that renewable energy sources should be given priority access to existing electricity infrastructure – an issue that is expected to present some difficulties for certain member states. The grid connectivity issue in particular has constrained the exploitation of the full potential of offshore wind. It is not the subsea cabling technology that is constraining offshore development – the NorNed link, which at 580 km is the world’s longest underwater power cable, between Norway and the Netherlands became operational earlier this year. Rather is is the uncertainity over who pays to connect the offshore wind farm to the mainland grid – either the developer or the transmission system operator (TSO). The party responsible for covering this cost varies widely across Europe, In Germany, for example, the costs involved in connecting offshore wind falls on the TSOs, elsewhere it would be the developer.

Environmental campaigner Greenpeace has recently published a study saying the construction of 10 000 wind turbines in the North Sea by 2030 would be feasible, but only if supported by a mega electricity grid. According to the report, such an interconnected grid of North Sea wind farms could produce in excess of 68 GW of electricity and support an astonishing 70 million households.

Greenpeace estimates that the construction of such a grid would cost in the region of €15-20 million ($22-29 million), with lucrative cross-border electricity trading enabling investors to recoup their construction costs quickly. According to Greenpeace, building a North Sea grid should not be a “pipe dream”.

Whether a developer or a TSO, it is clear that what all interested parties need is a clear lead from the EU on offshore wind grid connection or interconnection. Without this, the full potential of offshore wind is unlikely to be realized.

Earlier this year the Commission launched a specific consultation on offshore wind to identify the key barriers to its large-scale uptake. The results will feed into an action plan that is due to be presented by November.

Developers, TSOs and environmental groups will all be hoping that the EC delivers a robust action plan that secures the future of offshore wind development in Europe.