The North Sea has long been host to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and hundreds of rigs for producing oil and natural gas. Now, if European leaders have their way, this shallow and often turbulent stretch of water will, in the coming years, see what could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of investment aimed at reducing carbon emissions and further shrinking imports of fossil fuels from Russia.
At a summit held in Ostend, a Belgian port, in April, the leaders of nine European governments pledged to work together to roughly quadruple the already substantial amount of offshore wind generation capacity in the North Sea and nearby waters by 2030 and to increase it by about tenfold by 2050.
Significantly, the meeting, attended by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union president, included Britain, which recently went through a rancorous divorce from the bloc, and Norway, which is also not an E.U. member. The offshore areas around these two countries have the greatest potential for wind investment.
The aim of including all of these countries was “to give the perspective of making the North Sea the largest green energy plant in the world by combining all those coastlines,” said Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium, in an interview.
Mr. De Croo, whose government organized the meeting, said it was vital for Britain, which is a global leader in offshore wind, to be on board despite Brexit, its separation from the European Union. “Geographically, they are not going to move,” he said. “On many things they will remain a very, very important partner,” he added.
Seven E.U. members participated in the meeting including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and France, which have North Sea coastlines; Ireland, which is just a short sail from the British mainland; and Luxembourg, which Mr. De Croo described as a “virtual North Sea country.”
What’s driving the push for more offshore wind is a combination of growing concerns about climate change and a more recent determination to achieve energy independence from Russia, which has long been the key supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe.
Last winter Russia tried to use gas as a weapon against Europe in the war with Ukraine. While Moscow’s manipulation of supplies drove up energy prices in Europe, it also convinced its best customers, Germany and other European countries, that they needed to find other energy sources.
There are other reasons for Europe to look to the North Sea as an alternative energy source. The waters off northern Europe are blessed with strong winds and shallow water suited to planting turbines. The contemporary offshore wind industry largely originated in northern Europe and already generates a significant proportion of electric power in some countries, including 25 percent in Denmark and 15 percent in Britain in 2022, according to WindEurope, an industry group.
Finding alternative energy sources is one of the topics being discussed by leaders in business, politics and policy during London Climate Action Week, which runs through July 2.
Europe is also the home of some of the world’s largest turbine makers, including the Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, a company headquartered in Spain that has been a leader in offshore machines.
More spending on wind power will bolster an industry that employs an estimated 300,000 people in Europe. While there are worries that the shift to renewables will be devastating to centers of the petroleum industry like Stavanger in Norway and Aberdeen in Scotland, some oil and gas workers are finding employment in offshore wind.
Hitting Europe’s hugely ambitious goals for installing more offshore wind generation won’t be easy. Because of lead times of five years or more (depending on the awarding of leases and actual construction), “if you are setting a target in 2023, then the earliest you could get steel in the water is 2027,” or 2028, said Soren Lassen, head of offshore wind research at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm.
While Europe may have some of the largest turbine makers, heavy investment in new models, inflation and other problems have sapped these companies’ financial performances. It may be difficult for them and their suppliers to pay to scale up production as rapidly as needed. Although wind developers say they will proceed carefully, building many large structures at sea, including (under current plans) artificial islands, is bound to have an impact on the maritime environment.
Still, the overall direction seems clear: More renewable energy to replace polluting fossil fuels. Offshore wind farms are attractive to investors and churn out sizable amounts of electric power. “It makes sense to have a massive expansion of offshore wind given that we need a lot of green power,” said Karsten Capion, a senior analyst at Concito, a Danish research firm.
The large projects being built now can provide enough power to light up hundreds of thousands of homes and feature turbines with blades more than 300 feet long.
Industry executives say the North Sea also could be a promising laboratory for energy trading needed to balance a system dominated by renewables like wind and solar. Because these energy sources are variable, in order to work efficiently they require ways of offloading or storing power at times of excess generation and access to flows from elsewhere when there are power deficits.
A network of high-capacity cables already crosses the North Sea bottom allowing electric power to flow toward the market with the highest price. For instance, at times, one of these interconnectors may bring power generated by nuclear plants in France to Britain or hydropower from Norway to Germany.
As renewable sources form an ever larger part of the energy system, such links will become vital. “Renewable energy into the system of today and the future is going to create a need for collaboration, “ said Hilde Tonne, chief executive of Statnett, Norway’s electric grid operator. You could say that the North Sea and offshore wind “is an opportunity to do whatever we need to do in our renewable energy system,” she added.
The shift is already producing some futuristic innovations. Next year barges and cranes are expected to begin work on an artificial island in the North Sea about 30 miles off the coast of Belgium. Largely made of sand, Princess Elisabeth Island may cover almost 60 acres of seabed and cost around $2 billion.
Some people in the energy industry say the island is a harbinger of the future, when more of the European power network will be located offshore. The futuristic looking structure, with high walls to protect it from the sea, will be a gathering point for power cables from a large wind farm planned for waters nearby. Cables will also link these facilities to another island planned for the sea off Denmark and to Britain.
“Over time you will have a full North Sea network of those kinds of hubs,” said Chris Peeters, chief executive of Elia, the Belgian grid operator that is building the island.
Other plans for energy islands are also underway. Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a renewables investment firm, wants to build an island off Denmark that could include machines for making hydrogen, considered a clean fuel of the future, from the wind. “We believe it is much more cost effective and also creates a lot of new value to have the infrastructure out there, “ said Thomas Dalsgaard, the executive in charge of planning the project.
Building massive structures in the sea to tackle climate change is not free of environmental risks. Filip De Bodt, a fisheries campaigner at Climaxi, a Belgian environmental group, says the impact on sea life like crabs and lobsters, as well as on local fisheries, is unknown.
He also worries about the consequences of giant companies moving into the marine world. “The sea is not a sea anymore, it is becoming an industrial place,” he said.