In the wake of the European Commission’s REPowerEU announcement earlier this month that aims to secure Europe’s energy security and its simultaneous transition towards net-zero emissions, it is increasingly clear that an integrated-energy system is no longer solely an aspiration; it is a necessity. The last few months have provided a stark reminder that we are facing a triple challenge: we must decarbonise Europe’s energy but do so ensuring that its supply is affordable and secure. With its vast energy resources and extensive industrial infrastructure, the North Sea offers the ideal starting point for addressing this challenge. Its transformation has already started, and along with many players active in this space, Equinor, as the North Sea’s largest energy producer, has a vision and strategy for how such as future can be fully delivered.

The North Sea’s prominence as an international energy province first started with the development of offshore oil & gas in the 1960s, which had – and continues to have – a profound impact on Europe’s economic, social and industrial landscape – as a supplier of cost-efficient “domestic” energy to the continent, as well as an engine for job creation and massive investments in infrastructure. North Sea hydrocarbons are currently essential to Europe’s energy security and will still be needed for many years to come – albeit in a decarbonised form – as input to low-carbon fuels for hard-to-abate sectors and as feedstocks for non-energy applications such as chemicals.

Efforts are therefore underway to address the decarbonisation of both their production and end-use. The former can be achieved through the electrification of oil & gas platforms with low-carbon power supplied either from shore, as is the case of the Equinor Johan Sverdrup field off Norway, which at 0.17kg/CO2 per barrel emits 90% less than the global industry average; or from offshore wind farms such as the ground-breaking Hywind Tampen project developed by Equinor, set to later this year begin supplying one-third of the power needed to operate the Snorre and Gullfaks offshore oil & gas fields, also off Norway. The latter requires the decarbonisation of molecules through technologies such as low-carbon hydrogen production from natural gas, which we are maturing in several clusters across Northern Europe including the UK’s Humber region, combined with carbon capture and storage, which Equinor (then Statoil) pioneered at Norway’s Sleipner gas field in 1996 and where over 20 million tonnes of CO2 has since been stored.

The EU’s vast oil & gas infrastructure is key to secure energy supply to the continent, which should in a cost-effective and gradually decarbonised form, help drive the acceleration of power production from offshore wind

The 1990s brought with it a second transformation of the North Sea energy landscape, as the first offshore wind turbines were installed off the coast of Denmark as part of the Vindeby project. A new industry was born and has since grown exponentially. Offshore wind is already a key component of Northern Europe’s electricity supply and its build-out has spurred the development of an industrial ecosystem which has placed European companies in the vanguard of the global energy transition. This has in many cases enabled the transition of North Sea-based companies with a legacy in oil & gas, as is the case for Equinor. It is the experience we built in developing offshore oil & gas in the North Sea’s harsh conditions that allowed us to become an early mover in offshore wind in the 2000s, pioneering technologies such as floating wind turbines, and to build a portfolio of assets that is already powering 1 million European homes with renewable energy. This number is set to increase dramatically when our Dogger Bank wind farm – the world’s largest – comes into operation next year, providing electricity to 5 million UK homes.

These two waves of energy development in the North Sea established the key building blocks for delivering Europe’s energy transition while balancing the affordability-reliability-sustainability “trilemma”. The North Sea’s vast oil & gas infrastructure is a key pillar of secure energy supply to the continent, which can in a cost-effective and gradually decarbonised form accompany the necessary acceleration of renewable power production from offshore wind. So, what is missing to make the leap to the brave new world of ‘North Sea 3.0’? The answer lies in two words: “scale-up” and “integration”. “Scale-up” is about considerably expanding the decarbonisation of hydrocarbons production and end-use, as well as the further deployment of offshore wind. “Integration” is about combining the variable production of renewable electrons from offshore wind with energy storage technologies, a concept that Equinor has demonstrated with the ‘Batwind’ battery wired into the Hywind Scotland floating wind array, as well as power interconnectors and power-to-X technologies such as the numerous hydrogen electrolysis projects being matured across the North Sea basin – several of which the company is taking part in.

The good news is that European governments and industry alike have set themselves bold targets for the deployment of both offshore wind and decarbonised molecules to deliver an integrated net-zero energy system by 2050, including the most recent RePowerEU package. The challenge ahead – and it’s not a small one – lies in what it takes to execute on these ambitions. Streamlined consenting of new energy infrastructure, strategic planning and delivery of sufficient grid capacity and interconnection, scale-up of supply chains and workforce, turbocharged innovation, and fit-for-net-zero market structures and business models – this is what we now need. The only way to deliver such a comprehensive change agenda is through bold leadership and close collaboration between authorities, industries and communities, including across maritime boundaries in the North Sea. The ultimate reward is however absolutely worth the effort – a secure, affordable and sustainable European energy future.

· Matei Negrescu is Equinor’s head of renewables, North Sea area development