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Europe's ‘bleeding obvious’ offshore grid solution

ANALYSIS | The vast opportunities presented by a meshed HVDC offshore transmission network outweigh the challenges and expense involved, writes Darius Snieckus

In the past decade, Europe has made once-thought-impossible progress in its evolution away from a fossil-fuel powered existence — and offshore wind has arisen as a force central to the ambition not only of achieving EU-wide renewables targets that would match the climate change-combating pledge set out by the 2016 Paris Agreement, but also of renewing industrial growth in the northern seas’ maritime sectors.

Recent advances have been spectacular, of course. Offshore wind’s levelised cost of energy has slashed by half to under €50 ($58.80) per MWh, making it competitive with natural gas and far cheaper than nuclear, while the region’s fleet of sea-installed turbines expanded last year by 25% to nearly 16GW, with the prospect of that capacity growing off Europe to 230GW by mid-century.

Yet, if this vast, vital source of power production does not have an economic route to market, the region’s offshore turbines may as well be idling — and Europe’s energy transition will suffer a fundamental setback. New-model transmission infrastructure for this new energy is needed.

A €52m European Commission project has emerged to draw up plans for a so-called meshed grid that would network sprawling offshore wind plants and country-to-country interconnectors using high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) cables.

'Cooperation the key to a European meshed offshore network'

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The endeavour, called PROMOTioN (Progress on Meshed HVDC Offshore Transmission Networks), which has brought together 33 companies and organisations from 11 countries, is nothing short of visionary, ranging over the technological, environmental, regulatory and financial dimensions of an infrastructure build-out that represents “hundreds of billions of euros of opportunity — or risk”, as Christopher Jones, advisor at the EC’s energy directorate-general, pointed out.

Seizing the day, Europe could develop a meshed, offshore HVDC grid that would unlock an unprecedented socioeconomic welfare benefit of up to €7.8bn a year.

The challenges, not surprisingly, would be equally unprecedented. The required technologies — from as-yet-unproven gigawatt-scale supernodes on artificial islands to protective HVDC circuit breakers — are still to be fully commercialised.

Then there’s the legal and regulatory side — a cross-border offshore transmission network in the EU will present myriad, highly nuanced issues around the shared planning, construction and operation frameworks.

And last there is the indelicate matter of capital: how to fund construction of such a mega-project — which is likely to be beyond the budgets of Europe’s transmission system operators and so will call for sizeable public and private investment.

"The opportunity incontrovertibly wins the day on economic grounds."

Yet, all this factored in, the opportunity incontrovertibly wins the day on economic grounds — it’s “bleeding obvious”, as Jones put it. But there is something more, perhaps less tangible but arguably more valuable in a meshed HVDC grid off Europe: a flagship project for the regional co-operation as foreseen by the Energy Union, linking together not just coastal nations but the EU27 to Europe’s offshore wind resource.

The meshed offshore HVDC network, as several industry observers have remarked, represents a bona fide European project, a “New Digital and Renewable Deal” that could be the 21st Century successor to the 1950 European Coal and Steel Community that laid the foundations for the EU.

As Europe strives to reach a renewables target approaching 35% by 2030 and greater still beyond — and reinvents itself in the process, it might be apt to appropriate and update words attributed to Christopher Columbus as he set sail in 1492: “Following the light of the sun — and powered by seaborne winds — we left the Old World.” 

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