Belgium’s publicly-held transmission system operator Elia Group plans to build what it calls the “world’s first artificial energy island” by 2026 that will be linked to up to several gigawatts of offshore wind capacity and serve as a hub for power interconnectors with the UK and Denmark.

The ‘Princess Elisabeth Island’ in the North Sea at almost 45km off the Belgian coast will serve as a link between wind farms in the country’s second offshore wind zone – which will have a maximum capacity of 3.5GW – and its onshore high-voltage grid on land.

Construction of concrete caissons filled with sand is due to start in 2024, and should be completed in mid-2026, followed by the construction of the electrical infrastructure on the island. A small harbour and helicopter pad are also due to be built for maintenance teams.

“The plans for an energy island were developed as part of the recovery plan for Europe,” Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten said during Elia’s presentation of the island plan.

“Thanks to the very first energy island, new interconnections, three new wind farms in the North Sea and the repowering of the first offshore wind zone, we are transforming the North Sea into one big green power plant.

“By quadrupling offshore wind capacity by 2040, we will reinforce our energy independence, reduce our energy bills and reduce our CO2 emissions.”

The government has asked the European Commission to approve its plan to support the energy island with about €100m ($99.38m) from Belgium’s post-Covid-19 recovery plan.

Van der Straeten earlier this year had called for a higher offshore wind target of 8GW by 2030, up from the country’s current operating wind capacity at sea of 2.3GW.

Belgium is among a series of European countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, or Denmark that have steeply boosted their offshore wind targets to become less dependent on Russian energy imports, but has to find creative ways to fit all the new capacity into its small stretch of the North Sea with a coastline of only 67km.

The energy island will occupy an area of approximately five hectares above the waterline, but save maritime space as it will bundle electricity from future offshore wind farms to be transmitted to shore (in part) via 60km of direct current cables.

“The Princess Elisabeth Island constitutes a big leap forward for the energy transition,” Elia chief executive Chris Peeters said.

“In addition to bringing 3.5GW of additional offshore wind energy to shore, the island will also be the first link in a European offshore electricity grid.

“It will allow us to access the huge offshore wind potential that the North Sea still has to offer us.”

The island is slated to serve as a hub for future interconnectors with the UK (Nautilus) and/or Denmark (TritonLink), which will be hybrid interconnectors that have a dual function, Elia said. That will enable Belgium to also tap into the power of gigantic offshore wind farms in the North Sea being built by other countries with a much bigger sea space, such as the UK, Denmark or Norway.

Draft plans for the first energy island are now ready and the tender process is being prepared, the TSO added, as is an environmental impact assessment.

Surveillance against sabotage

Belgium’s North Sea minister Vincent Van Quickenborne also mentioned security aspects regarding the planned marine infrastructure, following the alleged attacks on the North Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea.

“Following the acts of sabotage inflicted on the North Stream gas pipelines, it has become more crucial than ever for us to protect such critical infrastructure from sabotage and attacks,” Van Quickenborne said.

“We will secure both the cables which transport electricity to the mainland and the energy island against these kinds of events. We recently passed a law that significantly strengthens such measures.

“We are now providing for the use of video surveillance at sea, drones, the tracking of foreign boats in our waters and having competent services carry out regular safety analyses.”

Denmark is also planning an artificial energy island in its part of the North Sea by 2030, and intends to turn the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm into an energy hub. Both are slated to be linked to several gigawatts of offshore wind.