Dutch and British homes could be lit and powered by wind farms surrounding an artificial island deep out in the North Sea, under advanced plans by Dutch transmission system operator TenneT BV.
The radical proposal envisages an island being built to act as a hub for vast offshore wind farms that would eclipse today’s facilities in scale. Dogger Bank, 125km off the East Yorkshire coast, has been identified as a potentially windy and shallow site.
The power hub would send electricity over a long-distance cable to the UK and the Netherlands, and possibly later to Belgium, Germany and Denmark.
TenneT recently shared early findings of a study that said its plan could be billions of euros cheaper than conventional wind farms and international power cables .
The sci-fi-sounding proposal is sold as an innovative answer to the industry’s challenge of continuing to make offshore wind power cheaper while turbines are pushed ever further off the coast to more expensive sites as the best spots closer to land fill up.
“It’s crucial for industry to continue with the cost reduction path,” TenneT manager of North Sea infrastructure Rob van der Hage said. “The big challenge we are facing toward 2030 and 2050 is onshore wind is hampered by local opposition and nearshore is nearly full. It’s logical we are looking at areas further offshore.”
As each kilometer out to sea means another kilometer of expensive cabling to get the power back to land, the firm argues a more innovative approach is needed.
The island idea would theoretically solve that by allowing economies of scale and higher wind speeds, and mean relatively short, affordable cables taking power from offshore turbines to the island.
There, converters will change it from alternating current — as used in mains electricity, but which incurs losses of power over long distances — to direct current for transmission back to the Netherlands or the UK.
That long-distance cable, an interconnector, would give the wind farms flexibility to supply whichever country’s market is paying the most for power at any given time and mean that the power almost always has a use.
To accommodate all the equipment, the island would take up 5 to 6 square kilometers, about one-fifth the size of Hayling Island in the English Channel.
While the actual engineering challenge of building the island seems enormous, Van der Hage is not daunted.
“Is it difficult? In the Netherlands, when we see a piece of water we want to build islands or land. We’ve been doing that for centuries. That is not the biggest challenge,” he said.
The more significant obstacles for the plan look likely to be economic.
While TenneT could shoulder the estimated 1.5 billion euro (US$1.8 billion) cost of building the hub at the project’s heart, it is not allowed to build power generation, so that would be left to offshore wind farm developers such as Denmark’s Orsted and Germany’s Innogy.
However, to get them on board, TenneT needs to find other energy network operators, such as the UK’s National Grid, to help pay for the long-distance power cable.
The next steps for the plan will come next year, in the shape of a roadmap published in the Netherlands.
If all goes well, Van der Hage said that the earliest the island could be operational is 2027, with the wind farms to follow.
The ambition for the scheme is sky-high. TenneT thinks the project could handle wind farms with a capacity of 30GW, more than twice today’s total installed offshore wind power across the whole of Europe. That scale could entice new investors.
Anglo-Dutch oil firm Royal Dutch Shell PLC has doubled its “clean” energy budget, but has said that offshore wind farms — despite usually costing billions of euros each — are not big enough yet for it to invest in them in a major way.
The idea has received a tentative welcome and businesses have said that it is not as far-fetched as it might sound.
Innogy SE chief operating officer of renewables Hans Bunting, whose company is not involved with the project, said the plan was “very interesting” and credible.
Danish Ambassador to the Netherlands Jens-Otto Horslund said that the plans and vision are interesting.
The British Crown Estate, which owns most of the UK seabed and would benefit from licensing it for the turbines and island, is working with TenneT to explore the idea.
“In order to continue unlocking the UK’s world-leading offshore wind resource it’s important we think long-term on opportunities for additional cost reduction, including the potential to trade offshore wind electricity internationally,” Crown Estate director of energy, minerals and infrastructure Huub den Rooijen said.
National Grid said it is an “innovative design that could play an important role in the long term.”
However, experts said there were still big questions to answer about the financial case.
Cornwall Insight energy analyst Peter Atherton said it is true that the best nearshore sites have been taken already, but the power converters that TenneT plans to build on the island are costly and relatively rarely used in energy infrastructure.
“It’s going to be expensive compared to what they produce locally [from wind farms nearer the coast],” he said. “It sounds a very interesting idea ... as the industry matures, you’d very much expect them to start thinking outside the box.”
However, “whether the economics pan out, whether you really can sell North Sea wind out to the continent, is questionable,”
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