This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.
If Europe is going to meet the tough carbon-cutting goals spelled out in the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s going to have to change the way it produces and consumes energy.
The emissions goals across the continent are formidable: Germany alone, for example, must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to 90 percent of what they were in 1990. It also has to increase its renewable energy share to 80 percent of its total energy production. Journeys like Germany’s are made more complicated by the continent’s steady move away from nuclear power, making the pressure to find clean renewable sources even more intense. To put it bluntly, Europe needs something big—and quick—to have any chance at success.
Thankfully, the region is already making some headway, particularly with some interesting projects in the wind-battered waters around Northern Europe. The most ambitious plan yet was unveiled to the public in early March: a new chain of artificial islands dedicated solely to wind power.
Under the plan, the North Sea could gain an archipelago of power-generating islands within a decade. A Danish, Dutch, and German consortium created by the companies TenneT and Energinet is launching plans to create an island 6 kilometers in circumference, roughly equidistant between Denmark, Norway, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Still at blueprint stage, the island would act as a power hub at the center of a vast new wind farm, at a scale that hasn’t been seen anywhere else thus far. Surrounded by a turbine array with a generating capacity of between 70,000 and 100,000 megawatts, the island would channel this energy through direct live cable connections to the countries surrounding the sea. These current lines would also function as an interconnector system, so that unneeded power could be sold onto other countries in periods of high production or low demand.
Finally, while it is unlikely that the islands would be permanently inhabited, they would provide an ideal base to service the turbines and power lines, providing a temporary base for staff that would make maintenance cheaper and easier. The video below—still speculative—reveals it as a reasonably spacious place, with a high, rocky breakwater sheltering space for a dock, an airstrip, and service buildings, as well as a freshwater pool with tree-planted edges. Should the initial project be successful, a string of other islands nearby could be in the works.
Of course, wind power generation is already possible, and even common, in the North Sea. It already hosts the world’s largest offshore windfarm, the London Array in the southern reaches of the sea. But with a capacity of 630 megawatts, that project pales in comparison to the island plans. Constructing an island this far from land, and in an area with little shipping, could create vast economies of scale, giving the turbine array enough space to spread out where wind conditions are optimal. What’s more, despite the far-flung location, the island can be constructed with less difficulty that you might expect. That’s because the site is on the Dogger Bank, a sub-aquatic sandbar which starts around 62 miles off the east coast of Britain that lies beneath shallow waters.
The plans are grand in scale, and so are Europe’s needs. The continent can hardly meet its Paris Agreement goals just by padding out its generation system with the odd splash of renewable energy. It needs a total transformation. A recent study, for example, estimated that the EU would need to shut down all its coal-fired power plants by 2030 to meet its CO2 targets—a process that is already underway. The sort of grand scale alternatives that could replace coal are not ones that can always be funded and created by individual nations, and it’s arguably essential that all production leaps in solar and wind power are fully integrated into an interconnector system, which means that they can be used far beyond their region of production.
That doesn’t mean that building the power island would be simple. There isn’t even a precedent to follow in deciding the island’s territorial status, and shallow waters make the area a popular fishing ground. To date, the genesis of even the small-scale windfarms currently located in the North Sea has been beset with problems. Further development of the London Array, for example, has been put on hold because of the potential threat to waterfowl in the nearby coastal flats. Meanwhile construction of Germany’s 400 MW Bard Offshore 1 windfarm came in far over budget, behind schedule and following deaths among the construction crew.
There’s no reason to assume that the new power island’s pitfalls would be identical, but this is challenging territory. And for the power industry, the project will be—quite literally—new ground.