Column by Professor Jacob Østergaard and Head of Division Kenneth Thomsen. Published in Jyllandsposten on 18 May.
On Wednesday, Mette Frederiksen has called a summit at the Port of Esbjerg attended by the heads of government from Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as the President of the European Commission The purpose is to enter into a joint agreement on a significant acceleration of the expansion of North Sea wind power.
We do not yet know by how many GW the heads of government want to expand wind power in the North Sea to give a further boost to the green transition and the EU’s independence of coal, oil, and gas. However, we know that the time horizon for the new target is presumably short, seen in the light of the current energy supply crisis. And we know that the two things in combination—an extensive expansion in a short period of time—will require research, innovation, and development from companies, researchers, and authorities.
Denmark has already chosen to accelerate the expansion of the two coming energy islands at Bornholm and in the North Sea. Where the plan was originally to build a capacity of 5 GW of offshore wind power—corresponding to the electricity consumption of five million households—the plan is now instead to expand the capacity to a total of 12-13 GW from the outset.
The right solutions are crucial
When the pace for the energy islands is accelerated so rapidly, it becomes necessary to develop the right solutions from the start to ensure that they are cost-effective and that we can continue to maintain a secure and resilient energy system. We currently lack knowledge about a number of points which are absolutely essential if the expansion is not to end up being misconceived from the start, thus costing misinvestments, delaying the long-term plans for a new North Sea venture, and challenging the stability of the European electricity grid.
Firstly, we have not yet figured out how to establish and incorporate the coming energy islands in the rest of our energy system. How do we best ensure the connection between the increased volume of offshore wind energy and a smart and digitized onshore energy system. We also need to develop solutions that will enable us to control and manage the electrical solutions on the energy islands. Furthermore, we have not yet clarified how we can effectively integrate Power-to-X solutions and hydrogen production on the energy islands.
Secondly, we need to design wind turbines that are optimized for the coming energy islands. A wind turbine is not just a wind turbine, but a high-tech wind power plant containing the most advanced mechanical, digital, sensory, aerodynamic, and intelligent technology imaginable. It is therefore necessary to adjust its components to the purpose and the location at which it is to operate. The coming offshore wind turbines on an energy island in the North Sea will be both larger and required to work under completely different conditions than the existing wind turbines.
If we are to succeed in this development and improvement, we need a better understanding of the forces of physics and of the interaction between offshore wind turbines and ocean currents, waves, and wind. We do not have sufficient knowledge about what happens when several wind turbines are placed together under the extreme physical conditions that prevail in the North Sea. The lack of knowledge and uncertainty will make the wind turbines more expensive. Either because we build them bigger and stronger than necessary to be on the safe side, or because we do not make them sufficiently durable, so that they need increased maintenance.
Bornholm as a test island
DTU has previously estimated that—by developing the wind turbines and transformer substations of the energy islands with a few new technological solutions—it is possible to cut costs by DKK 20 billion. This is equal to nearly 10 per cent of the total construction costs of DKK 210 billion which the Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities has estimated that the energy island in the North Sea will cost. Such a cost reduction clearly shows why it pays to ensure both time and finances to develop the most optimal solution.
When rejoicing about the new European agreement to increase offshore wind power by more GW in the North Sea, it is important to remember that it takes more than just political handshakes and signatures on an agreement. We have much development and innovation work ahead of us. We will succeed in this work if the politicians remember to incorporate innovation in the plans for the energy islands. This work requires that we pull together, with the collaboration between researchers, companies, and authorities being crucial to our ability to create the right solutions from the start.
In our opinion, the most obvious approach is to start already now with Energy Island Bornholm, which will be the first of the two islands. With Bornholm as a starting point, we can secure and develop the right solutions so that we do not risk building museum islands with technology that is outdated already before the construction work has been completed and without the possibility of future adaptation and expansion.