The North Sea is set to become Europe’s largest climate-neutral energy system by 2050. It may provide the blueprint for the same to happen across the oceans.
By Dan Whitaker
The countries around Europe’s North Sea don’t need telling that this body of water can determine history. Steve Scrimshaw, Siemens Energy’s Vice President, is a native of Newcastle, a city replete with signs of the North Sea-traversing Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invaders and settlers who helped shape the country that is now called England; they used the same waters to build trade links with Europe and beyond. First established by the Romans in 78 CE, the Port of Tyne was used to trade with Spain, Italy and Northern Europe and is today one of the UK’s most efficient deep-sea ports.
In the last fifty years, hydrocarbons have been exploited from under these waves, once a realm of forests. This has, for example, contributed to making Norway one of the continent’s wealthiest countries and helped meet Europe’s energy needs for decades. In the face of the growing climate crisis, now there is a bold initiative to turn tack and ‘decarbonize’ the North Sea, which may provide the gift of a badly needed blueprint for the same to happen across other seas and oceans.
“Technology won’t limit us, even though we need to be adaptable - what we think are the solutions today might not be the solutions for tomorrow.”Steve Scrimshaw, Vice President Siemens Energy UK
Decarbonization of the North Sea is a Group Achievement
The strongest theme throughout decarbonization discussions is the need for integration and partnership. “We can’t do this alone. No one person or organization has the solution,” Steve Scrimshaw says.
One strand of this partnership is across stakeholders within countries. In Rotterdam, government, the port and the petrochemicals industry have joined in the Porthos project to capture carbon and store it in depleted subsea gas fields – important given that more than a fifth of the Netherland’s carbon emissions currently emanate from Rotterdam’s port area. “Net-Zero Teesside”, near Steve’s native Newcastle, has a similar public-private initiative where industrial, power and hydrogen businesses are coming together to decarbonize their entire operations.”
Another strand is between countries, something most visible with interconnectors, linking countries and energy systems across the North Sea. Belgium’s Elia and the UK’s National Grid built the Nemo Link, which has a state of the art Siemens Energy HVDC link that can serve a million homes. At the moment, interconnectors just link the two countries, in the future it could connect all regions bordering the North Sea.
Artificial energy islands in the North Sea
The third facet of partnership is between companies. Siemens Energy is providing the equipment for Equinor’s Troll West electrification project, which will cut offshore platform emissions by half a million tonnes. It also plans to upgrade two of Maersk Drilling’s ultra-harsh environment CJ70 rigs with hybrid power plants that use lithium-ion energy storage, reducing CO2 emissions by a quarter and NOx emissions by 95%.
The North Sea energy transition will require complex, first-of-a-kind solutions that no company can provide on their own. One of these is artificial energy islands – electricity hubs in the North Sea built on man-made islands. Elia and Denmark’s Energinet are collaborating on what may be a world first: a subsea connection between two such artificial energy islands.
There are also advanced plans in Germany, the Netherlands and Scotland. Electricity interchange already takes place, but future solutions will facilitate not only energy distribution but also storage, for instance of hydrogen that may be generated by electrolysis from wind energy. Energy and investment costs can be shared between North Sea neighbours.
Such ambitious projects can only become reality if the right partners come together. For example, in June 2022 Siemens Energy and Air Liquide announced the creation of a joint venture for the European production of large-scale renewable hydrogen electrolyzers. By combining their expertise, the companies aim to enable the emergence of a sustainable hydrogen economy in Europe.
" With all that’s happening on Planet Earth at the moment, this feels a moral as well as a business responsibility. "
North Sea wind power hubs for a successful energy transition
What is driving this unprecedented collaboration? For Steve the answer is simple. Reflecting on the futures of his two grandchildren and those of colleagues, he says, “with all that’s happening on Planet Earth at the moment, this feels a moral as well as a business responsibility. When we eventually leave, we should have made this a better place.”
And this strength of feeling is evident across northwest Europe. In May 2022, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark signed the Esbjerg Declaration to build 150GW of additional North Sea wind power hubs and associated infrastructure. In the same month the EU published its REPowerEU Plan to end dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. To accomplish the North Sea energy transition, many bordering countries are also developing national plans to help meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Siemens Energy is committed to playing its part by —amongst other things— ensuring that the North Sea will be Europe’s largest climate-neutral energy system by then. Steve explains what this means for the UK, for example: “We will have to replace today’s electricity system with one five to ten times its size”, including dozens more GWs of offshore wind capacity. The policy environment has produced what he calls “a perfect storm” for dynamic change, but the challenges ahead remain immense.
The eight countries that border the North Sea are accustomed to powerful storms. Winds can race at 112 mph, generating over 14 meter high waves. The shallowness of much of the shelf has allowed the construction of turbines that turn these gusts into electricity. Interconnections to land and between countries via submarine cable connection in such harsh conditions make the North Sea a crucible for progress and innovation, providing an example for the possibilities for any habitable area on the planet.
Decarbonization of the North Sea: Technology races forwards
Rapid technological advances provide a tailwind for decarbonization plans for the North Sea. For a start, the seabed-based wind turbines of today are likely to be supplemented by floating versions for deeper water. Some of these electricity hubs in the North Sea could also provide electrical power to some of the more than 180 oil and gas rigs which are another key element of the energy systems of the North Sea’s.
There are several ways to reduce those rigs’ carbon footprints while they continue to operate, functioning as an important part of both reducing dependence on Russian imports, on shifting from coal to lower carbon fuels and providing energy security while we transition to Net Zero for the North Sea.
Again the North Sea itself offers potential solutions as well as challenges: “You could desalinate its water and extract the hydrogen from that”, Steve points out. In the meantime, rig energy efficiency can be increased. Even if electrical input is not available, there are other options to decarbonize: The carbon could be captured from the methane that is currently burnt to power the compressors that do the rigs’ pumping. The North Sea itself offers great potential sites for where that carbon might be buried. Methane could also be replaced as a fuel, by various possible hydrogen options, for example, or methanol or ammonia.
“ Hydrogen doesn’t have that yet, so the chicken and the egg remain waiting for each other. ”
The offshore wind energy business becomes a role model
The promise of hydrogen brings us to government policy. Offshore wind energy expanded because a clear end market was created – in countries such as Germany and the UK its power could be sold directly to national grids. “Hydrogen doesn’t have that yet”, laments Steve, “so the chicken and the egg remain waiting for each other”, but he is sure that governments will keep re-designing their policy frameworks to ensure that hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and other markets will grow, bringing down costs, as happened for offshore wind energy.
There are other evolving technologies that interest Steve. He speaks of a Siemens Energy pilot program at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford that used energy generated with a wind turbine to produce green ammonia, which itself became the fuel for a combustion engine. Ammonia is also of interest through its use as a vehicle for transporting hydrogen. The possibilities are exciting but also underline that as oil and gas engineers are retrained in renewables, there may also be a need for more young chemists.
New energy systems for the North Sea: “Technology won’t limit us”
What then are the bottlenecks, apart from delays in regulatory evolution? Steve is clear: “Technology won’t limit us, even though we need to be adaptable - what we think are the solutions today might not be the solutions for tomorrow”. He believes we will more likely be limited by production capacities, and by finding a work force that has the necessary skills in transmission, for example. As the sources of energy move away from those of today, and as intermittence increases, it is indeed clear that our infrastructure will need large-scale reconfiguration. The pace of collaborations will have to pick up further to address this.
Net Zero for the North Sea can be done, as the countries around it work together not only to eliminate the carbon, but also generate, store, convert and transport great volumes of renewable energy, it seems certain that this dynamism and experience will radiate out in every direction of the compass. Once again, the relatively small body of water that is the North Sea will be exerting outsize influence across the world.
About the author: Steve Scrimshaw is VP at Siemens Energy UK & Ireland. He’s a member of the UK Government’s Hydrogen Advisory Council and also sits on the Green Jobs Delivery Group.
Daniel Whitaker is an economist and journalist based in London. His work has appeared in a range of business publications and also in newspapers such as the Financial Times and The Economist.
Combined picture and video credits: Siemens Gamesa, Siemens Energy