Red tape is in the way of Europes green offshore energy transition

By Morten Helveg Petersen, MEP, (pictured)
Autumn 2021

Adina Valean, EU Commissioner for TransportAs we look towards reshaping the European energy system, we best make room for offshore renewable energy. There has been a great deal of focus on the potential of offshore renewable energy, and we have good reasons for being excited about these technologies that can greatly contribute to our green transition

Given the vast amounts of renewable energy needed to cover our future energy needs, it is becoming abundantly clear that we need to make use of every available bit of space, both on land and especially at sea. As rapporteur for the European Strategy for Offshore Renewable Energy, I want to make sure offshore renewable energy gets the best possible conditions, and that it contributes to the EU's green transition.

Offshore renewable energy will be the engine behind Europe's move for climate neutrality, thanks to the huge amounts of cheap, clean energy it can provide. Some might think that offshore is a game for the North Sea, given the area´s leading role in developing and deploying offshore energy solutions, but offshore renewable energy is relevant across Europe's seas and can benefit the whole continent.

If we also ensure electricity can flow freely across borders, the winds blowing over The North Sea will power houses in Slovakia, while sunshine over The Mediterranean will power houses in Austria.

As the International Energy Agency (IEA) mentioned in its report earlier this year, we need to act now. The path to climate neutrality is getting narrower and narrower. With each year we are not reaching our full potential in terms of transitioning towards renewable energy, the scale of change needed becomes bigger and bigger.

There are many interests at sea, and it is clear that we need to balance these better than we are doing at the moment. The different stakeholders will play a role in how things will be done in the future, but at the political level we need to make sure the level of urgency is not forgotten.

Unabated climate change is pushing the development in the wrong direction. Failure to introduce more renewable energy into our energy mix will make the situation increasingly dire. All this could throw a wrench in the gears, as more dire weather conditions will lead to less space available. It is important to realise the benefits that come with offshore energy deployment, and prioritise offshore with a view to the enormous amount of energy needed to transition away from fossil fuels.

Offshore wind has been growing but there are still barriers that can hamper the necessary rollout of projects. One of the more contentious topics is that of permitting. While we need to make sure that further development is done in full compliance with all existing regulations and without infringing on the local actors, it is absolutely imperative to improve the current state of permitting processes.

The gigantic task ahead of us, and the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves, will simply not be reachable if projects are stuck for years waiting for the right permits to be granted. Unnecessary red tape must be removed and application times must be reduced to a minimum.

We are reaching such a critical point that we might have to consider providing instant permits for offshore wind farms, and turn the burden of proof in its head in the permission processes. The urgency with which we need to deploy offshore renewable energy is so serious that we need to favour the deployment of projects. In order to ensure the necessary rollout of renewable energy, we also need to tweak the rules regulating the energy markets. Considering that the energy system of the future will look vastly different from our current one, it is important to align the market conditions to our ultimate goal: a carbon-neutral and sustainable energy system based on renewable energy.

Offshore renewable energy will play an important role in the energy system of the future, and market rules should account for that. Not having the proper incentives in place can keep investors away from green choices. While there is the political will to use public investments for greening the energy sector, we will need as much private investment as possible going into green projects. This will also require the removal of incentives that artificially keep non-renewable energy projects profitable.

One last barrier is the state of infrastructure. Our energy use is forecasted to increase and as we switch from fossil-fuel sources to renewable alternatives, the amount of electricity that will need to flow through our grids will soar. The very nature of offshore energy will add to the distance the electricity has to travel. We must remove any and all bottlenecks along the way. Every GW of renewable energy out at sea that is not able to flow into the grid is not only a waste of resources, but it most likely also represents a missed opportunity to replace a GW of fossil-fuel-based energy. The ability for offshore energy to contribute to our green transition will depend on our ability to build out the necessary infrastructure that will facilitate cross-border energy transfer. We will only succeed if we do it together.

The challenge seems daunting but IEA found it is still reachable. All we have to do is push forward and not delay this any further.