North Sea, the energy future is in wind

North Sea, the energy future is in wind

Arianna Pescini
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More and more countries are concentrating on offshore wind turbines. And in 2030 the wind farms exploiting the northern winds could generate 7% of Europe's energy needs

A true and proper energy conversion. In the North Sea fossil fuel deposits may soon give way to a sizeable pool of offshore wind power. From Britain to Holland, going by way of Denmark and Norway, turbine centers exploiting the mighty north winds to generate electricity are the technology of the future. A business that could, by 2030, satisfy 7% of Europe’s electricity needs (the figure currently stands at 1.5 %): "In recent years this energy capacity has grown a lot‘ - states Professor David Reiner, vice-director of Energy Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge. “In the UK, for example, offshore wind turbines have received the most subsidies among all clean technologies, for even three times the total production costs."

Wind instead of oil

According to a study by WindEurope, with 3000 turbines already active, generating 10 GW of power, others will be put in place,  increasing production by an annual average of 4 GW. Overall, over the coming 15 years the North Sea will produce more than 60 GW of wind farmed power. A boom also encouraged by the recent fall in crude oil prices, which is pushing the oil companies of the area to abandon their fields, that are becoming less economic to work: 50 could be decommissioned by the end of the year, but analysts expect 140 wells will be closed down by 2020. A symbol of change is Aberdeen in Scotland, up to now the European oil capital, which is slowly changing its industrial structure: "With the decline in production of gas and oil - continues Reiner - the large companies, on their way out, will be replaced by much smaller ones. Financial resources previously directed towards the oil market in the area are now being redirected towards wind power. Though I believe the switch from oil and gas to wind will not be that easy for companies, there are still several factors that need to be considered, such as the risks of the business in itself, or the predominance, in terms of knowhow, of petroleum rather than electrical engineers."

The most promising projects

The most productive wind farms are located off the coast of Scotland, England, Denmark and Holland. In Britain, a country that already has the largest offshore wind farm in the world (the London Array, 175 wind turbines), energy companies are working among other things on the Race Bank and and Dogger Bank projects, two wind farms complexes which, once completed, will respectively produce 0.5 and 2.4 GW of electric power. Dogger Bank will be located 125 km from the English shores, but it will soon be superseded by Hornsea, jewel of the Danish company Dong Energy, stretching over 407 square kilometers (larger than the island of Malta) and by 2020 should produce 6 GW of power. The Hornsea wind farm will host up to 240 turbines, capable in theory of providing electricity to more than one million British homes. The renewable "colonization" of the North Sea is also taking place off the coast of Holland: Gemini will be a site with 150 turbines (work is scheduled to end in 2017) and 600 megawatts of power; the installation costs will reach a total of 2.8 billion euros, but Gemini will help save on CO2 emissions, reducing them by 1.25 million tons per year. The wind farms Borssele 1 and 2 however are proving to be among the most economical in Europe, thanks also to Dutch government incentives: costing only 7,27 euro cents per kw/h.

An expensive conversion

The energy transition in the North Sea is occurring by way design of offshore wind farms, preferred by local authorities to onshore ones (which have lower installation costs). Despite some protests (although the sites are several miles from the coast, in some cases the blades are visible in the distance, as well as  the supporting structures), projects are strongly supported by the countries of the area, and will not be blocked, even though to what degree the costs will  continue to be depreciable cannot be predicted: "We do not know if prices will fall further - concludes Reiner - in Britain the practice of the auctions has enabled the creation of a competitive market, but offshore wind farms  are still on a much smaller scale  than  onshore facilities. Nevertheless, experiments are being made, like the use of floating turbines, even if they are only in their infancy."

Europe continues to lead the way

Europe has been the precursor of wind energy, both offshore and onshore. The first wind farms in fact came into being in Denmark in 1991. And of the 25 most important offshore wind farms, 24 are located on European territory (the remaining one is Chinese), of which as many as ten are located in and around the UK and nine in Germany. Currently, a total of 142 GW of wind power capacity has been installed, 131 in onshore and 11 offshore farms. The North Sea countries are driving the change, thanks also to the agreement in the European Commission reached last June to strengthen business relations, create interconnecting hubs and implement joint strategies on the energy market.