Offshore wind power could carry Europe to carbon-neutrality by mid-century, mushrooming to an installed base of 450GW and meeting 30% of the continent’s power demand — but to do so at lowest cost needs a “visionary” root-and-branch rethink of marine spatial planning, according to a landmark report published today by WindEurope.

The study, Our Energy, Our Future, shows that 85% of this capacity — around 380GW — could be built in the North, Irish and Baltic Seas, with the remaining 70GW generated in Southern European waters.

“The EU says Europe needs at least ten times as much offshore wind as we have today to meet the 2050 goal of decarbonising energy. The IEA [International Energy Agency] believes offshore wind could become the number-one source of power generation in Europe in the early 2040s,” WindEurope chief executive Giles Dickson tells Recharge.

“The report shows that it is doable and affordable. But three things need to happen: one, the offshore wind supply chain keeps growing; two, we build the grid connections; and three, we get the maritime spatial planning right.”

Marine spatial planning — the usage rights to offshore acreage — will be “crucial” to the industry’s rapid development, the report found, as shipping, fisheries and military activity currently rule out 60% of Europe’s northern seas to offshore wind farms.

Without these “exclusion zones”, the region’s full potential of wind resource offshore could be developed at a much lower overall levelised cost of energy (LCOE), says the report, which was commissioned by WindEurope from UK-based consultancy BVG Associates.

Allowing offshore wind in these exclusion zones could lead to 248GW being built in the North Sea for less than €50/MWh by 2050, with a further 130MW at €50-65/MWh and 2GW for €65-80. However, if the zones remain in place, these figures fall to 112GW below €50/MWh; 264GW at €50-65/MWh; and 4GW at €65-80/MWh.

“Yes, 450GW is very do-able. The numbers make sense to us,” said BVG Associates managing consultant Kate Freeman, one of the authors of report. “But challenging the status quo on spatial planning… is essential to getting the most out of the steep cost reduction in offshore wind.

“With the current exclusion zones, almost three quarters of the future capacity cannot be built at a ‘very low’ LCOE.

“There have been frictions with many of the industries — shipping, fisheries, military — that share the offshore environment… but now is the time that we as a society can share that perceived burden I think there is a way through to this [450GW],” she said.

“The Blue Economy [the commercial offshore ecosystem] is a big part of our future in Europe — and offshore wind part of the energy system that is going to power it. This report should be a wake-up call for policymakers and marine planners: the cheapest and most space-efficient way to build the 450GW is through the multiple use of the same maritime space by different sectors.”

Dickson added: “On maritime spatial planning, we need a long-term approach with climate priorities at its heart. And more multiple use, for example, allowing fishing in offshore wind farms.”

The rate of build-out of offshore wind needed to reach the 2050 target would, in any scenario, require a “wartime campaign”, Freeman agreed. Accelerating from the annual 3GW being installed now to over 20GW a year from 2030 would need an ever-largssupply chain and a capital rising rise from €6bn in 2020 to €45bn per year by 2030.

“It will be a big undertaking, but it can be the investment can be mobilised,” she said. “It is increasingly being seen that, yes, this is very big campaign, but the pay-off could hardly be more worthwhile.”

“Rather than looking at offshore wind now or even a few years from now, we need to be seeing this as this is to get 30% of your energy generation [by 2050). These investment levels need to be seen in that context — and in that context, these numbers seem like no-brainers to me.”

There will also need to be heavy investment in grids to support Europe’s offshore wind expansion — by BVG Associates’ calculations rising from €2bn next year to €8bn annually by 2030. Building this backbone of a future “EU-wide energy system will require EU-wide cooperation”, said Freeman, with governments promoting “hybrid” offshore wind projects with connections to more than one country and the development of meshed offshore grids.

“This will require enhanced cooperation between countries,” she added, “in order to pool assets and optimise space.”

“The way the North Sea and the Baltic are currently developing is the right way to go [Europe-wide]. The countries around those sea-regions are working together, on the government agency level, the industry bodies, the developers, the supply chain and so on. And the Atlantic and Mediterranean can follow this, then I think we can definitely get to [450GW].

The IEA last month produced a first-ever report on offshore wind, forecasting the worldwide fleet expanding 15-fold to reach “at least” 340GW and generating some $1trn in investment before 2040. The International Renewable Energy Agency recently doubled its 2050 estimate for offshore wind, saying it now expects more than 1,000GW will be installed and turning around the world by mid-century.