Offshore wind energy development in the Baltic sea must accelerate

By: Emilia Samuelsson

Untapped potential of offshore wind industry globally

Offshore wind potential has attracted increased attention in recent years, for good reasons. A comprehensive global study found that global offshore wind capacity is set to increase 15-fold and attract around $1 trillion of cumulative investment by 20401.

However, the full potential is far greater. The geospatial analysis of this report was limited to the best offshore wind sites and still found that the technical potential is 36,000 TWh per year. Current electricity demand is around 23,000 TWh. These installations would be in water less than 60 metres deep and within 60 km from shore. Adding the potential of floating turbines could unlock power to meet global demand 11 times over in 20401.  According to the International Energy Agency, offshore electricity could become the EU’s leading energy source by the early 2040s1. During 2019 a record 3.6 GW of new offshore wind capacity was added across Europe2

A study by WindEurope concludes that 7 GW of new offshore wind capacity needs to be built each year, rising to 18 GW a year by 20503 in order to reach EU climate goals.

Europe currently has 22,072 MW of installed offshore wind capacity2.This corresponds to 5,047 wind turbines across 12 nations (ibid.). The country with the largest percentage of Europe’s offshore wind power is the United Kingdom, with 45% of all installations. Germany has 34%, Denmark 8%, the Netherlands 7% and Belgium 6%2. These five nations thus account for 99% of total European capacity. 

Even though the potential of offshore wind industry is undisputed, there are challenges to establish the industry in an inclusive way. The oceans are widely used, and maritime spatial planning needs to address the needs of diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. For expansion to be sustainable and have least impact on affected stakeholders the geographic locations of offshore windfarms need careful consideration. At present, the areas available for offshore wind are too limited, as large areas are excluded for military use or nature conservation, or earmarked for fishing. Unless more sea areas are made accessible in Europe, just 112 GW of offshore wind capacity would be possible, rather than 4503.

The potential of the Baltic Sea

In Europe, the North Sea accounts for 77 percent of all cumulative off-shore wind capacity, the Irish Sea 13 percent, and the Baltic Sea 10 percent and the Atlantic Sea under 1 %. The Baltic Sea has 2 GW of installed offshore wind capacity. Denmark has 872 MW, Finland 68 MW, Germany 1,074 MW and Sweden 192 MW. 

A report from WindEurope focusing on boosting the offshore wind power in the Baltic Sea4 shows that by 2030, 9 GW could easily be deployed in this region. With the right government support and regional cooperation, this amount could be increased to over 14 GW. By 2050 the installed capacity could reach 85 GW, which would make the Baltic Sea the second largest basin for offshore wind power after the North Sea. However, the cumulative potential capacity in the Baltic Sea calculated by the European Commission is above 93 GW, with a generation capacity of 325 TWh/year5.

In comparison with the North Sea, wind farms in the Baltic Sea are exposed to weaker tides, lower waves and shallower water depths – conditions which could make development easier. One of the few topographical hindrances that must be allowed for is seasonal ice in the north Baltic Sea. With such potential, why is the Baltic Sea lagging behind in the deployment of offshore wind farms? The main reason is the absence of clear policy reinforcement and market linkage. These factors have hindered development in Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania. Finland and Sweden have large shares of nuclear and hydro in their energy mixes, with additional biomass, gas and onshore wind. Due to cheap hydro power and existing nuclear, offshore wind deployment has not been prioritised here, as it is in Denmark and Germany. Areas earmarked for offshore wind establishment are scarce, due to conflicts of interest. 

Action is needed now for future benefits

The electrification of the global energy system is increasing. Unfortunately, fossil fuels still account for nearly two-thirds of the world’s electricity generation – the same proportion as  two decades ago. Development must accelerate in order to have a chance of reaching the set energy and climate goals in time.  

Apart from electricity, the high capacity and falling costs of offshore wind could be used to produce green hydrogen6. Green hydrogen is produced from water by renewables-powered electrolysis; it creates no carbon and can be sold or stored until needed. Thus, hydrogen could provide an important form of energy storage and balancing tool. Hydrogen can also be used as an energy source by industries that are the most difficult to decarbonise, such as steel and cement production. 250,000 homes could be heated with hydrogen fuel from 1 gigawatt of offshore wind (IEA 2019, p 14). 

By promoting maritime spatial planning that defines suitable areas for offshore wind farms, development can be accelerated in the most suitable areas. An offshore wind farm takes about 10 years to build. Procedures for obtaining permits are slow, and resistance from local populations and other stakeholders can prolong development further. Maritime spatial planning that supports coexistence of offshore wind farms and other users, as well as increasing the social acceptance, can improve and accelerate these practices. 

Another important factor for boosting the deployment of offshore wind in the Baltic Sea is to look to EU funding. Different funding schemes allow governments and the private sector to support technological innovation, strengthen cooperation and knowledge sharing. Between 2014 and 2020 approximately €80bn was provided by the EU to fund research, mainly through the Horizon 2020 research programme. Together with the European Commission, member states should use the potential of EU funding for support in deploying cross-border projects.  

States need to define clear climate and energy objectives to provide the foundation for expanding internal offshore markets and exploit the added value that the sector brings. When it comes to economic growth, offshore wind energy boosts imports and exports. It attracts international investments. Offshore wind energy enhances energy independence and security. 

Governments need to provide clarity on future offshore volumes through suitable support mechanisms and by confirming new site allocations.

All the countries that surround the Baltic Sea basin would benefit from developing offshore wind. When it comes to jobs, wind energy creates careers in turbine manufacturing, electricity generation and other industries. Studies have shown that in the scenario of 32 GW of offshore wind by 2050 in the Baltic Sea, up to 10,000 annual full-time jobs would be created in planning and building wind farms. In addition, up to a further 29,000 full-time jobs would be created in operation and maintenance activities5.

In conclusion, the offshore wind industry in the Baltic Sea can become an important asset for Europe’s transition to a renewable energy sector. Benefits would include competitive and clean energy, and increased local and international economic growth. However, development in the Baltic Sea has been slow to date, and needs to catch up in order to support the decarbonising of the energy sector.

Emilia Samuelsson

1. IEA (2019), Offshore Wind Outlook 2019, Paris 

2.  Wind Europe (2020) Offshore Wind in Europe–key trends and statistics 2019,  Brussels. 

3. Wind Europe (2019) Our energy, our future How offshore wind will help Europe go carbon-neutral, Brussels 

4. Wind Europe (2019). Boosting offshore wind energy in the Baltic Sea, Brussels 

5. (2019). Study on baltic offshore wind energy cooperation under BEMIP: Final report. Luxembourg : Publications Office of the European Union.

6. Mackenzie, W. (2020, January 31). Green Hydrogen: A Pillar Of Decarbonization? 

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