Energy security has gained prominence in the EU Member States following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Beyond achieving independence from Russian oil and gas, the escalating impacts of global climate change are compelling factors in accelerating the adoption of renewable energy sources. These sustainable energy sources present notable benefits over fossil fuels, given their abundance, low cost and minimal greenhouse gas emissions throughout their operational phases. The EU countries are now transitioning to a low-emission economy by devising strategic renewable energy systems that minimise alterations to landscapes and societies.
Among the renewable energy sources available, the EU prominently stands out in the field of wind energy, as it leads the way in wind power engineering. It holds the global position in manufacturing key wind turbine components and the foundations and cables industry: almost half of the active companies in the wind energy sector are headquartered in the EU. The International Energy Agency also notes that, by 2027, wind energy will have strengthened its leading position among the other renewable energy sources (RES) in the EU.
Wind farms are usually characterised by their location: offshore, installed in the sea, and onshore, operating on land. The former provides a clean source of energy that takes advantage of the far-off-coast wind that reaches higher and more constant speeds due to the absence of any natural barriers. Offshore wind farms thus help tackle the energy intermittency issue of renewables, as wind speeds are highest when consumer demand is at its peak. Most land-based wind resources are stronger at night when electricity demands are lower, so offshore wind farms will charge the grids when onshore supply cannot meet demand.
The first offshore wind farm was installed in Vindeby, situated off the southern coast of Denmark, in 1991. Despite skepticism at the time regarding its potential beyond a mere demonstration project, today offshore wind power is a mature, large-scale technology providing energy to millions of people around the world. The EU now uses these farms to meet the growing demand for renewable energy on the continent, outpacing North America and the Asia-Pacific region in market share of offshore wind energy.
To meet its 2030 targets, the EU would have to build, on average, over 30 GW a year of new wind capacity. The five European sea basins – the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the EU Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea – possess an enormous potential for offshore wind and ocean energy and would help immensely in meeting that goal. In 2021, EU offshore wind farms had combined a capacity of 14.6 GW. By taking advantage of its sea basins, the EU forecasts capacity to increase at least 25-fold by 2030. It has set goals for installing at least 60 GW of offshore wind-sourced energy (300 GW by 2050) and 1 GW of ocean-sourced energy (40 GW by 2050) by 2030.
In parallel with this global transformation, Belgium has emerged as one of Europe’s premier offshore wind markets. The year 2022 marked a remarkable upswing in installed wind capacity across EU nations, hitting a total of 16,091.3 MW—the largest surge witnessed between 2016 and 2022. Noteworthy among these increases, Belgium elevated its wind capacity by 2357.9 MW, falling within the range of 2000–5000 MW increments observed among various countries. Among the sea basins that play a pivotal role in renewable energy production, the Belgian North Sea will act as a giant hub that will aid toward the goal of reaching 300 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2050. An important step in that direction is Princess Elisabeth Island, the first world international energy hub to centralise all electricity produced by the wind farms in the area. It will also be a landing point for two hybrid interconnectors with the UK and Denmark, which will link to other offshore wind farms in the North Sea.
The island will be placed approximately 45 kilometres off the coast, with a designated space for electrical infrastructure of about 6 hectares, an area comparable to 12 football pitches. Crafted from concrete caissons filled with sand, the island will be protected by a wall shielding it from strong waves, rain and potential flooding. A small harbour and helicopter platform will allow maintenance crews to visit the island. Its infrastructure will collect the electricity generated by the adjacent energy farms’ turbines, which will then travel back to land through a series of cable systems that are buried in the sea floor. This electricity is channelled through coastal load centres – or landing points – that prioritise where the electricity should go and distribute it into the electrical grid. This system ultimately contributes to the fulfillment of the island's mission: to easily integrate more energy coming from renewable sources into the grid.
The financing for this project will be sourced from the European Investment Fund, through its Invest Climate and Infrastructure Product. The fund directs equity investments towards thematic strategies, with Princess Elisabeth Island falling under the Clean Energy Transmission strategy that the European financial sector can invest in. The main aim of these funds is to provide additional incentives and support for the national economy to invest in future-oriented initiatives, as these projects tend to be larger in scale and thus represent more risk for a Member State to uptake on its own. The EU is particularly interested in developing the offshore wind market because their larger scale provides a more stable and substantial supply of energy to the grid, reducing the impact of variability associated with smaller-scale renewable projects that the onshore wind farms often tend to be.
Acknowledging that dedicating resources to infrastructure is synonymous with fostering economic growth and bolstering European socio-economic well-being, the construction of the Princess Elisabeth island serves as a compelling testament to the power of innovative approaches to harnessing RES’ potential. The construction will start in early 2024 and will continue until August 2026. The construction of Princess Elisabeth Island not only showcases the EU's dedication to renewable energy but also underscores the economic and socio-economic benefits of investing in innovative infrastructure. By harnessing the potential of renewable energy sources and fostering a robust offshore wind market, the EU is not only enhancing its energy security but also positioning itself as a global leader in sustainable and resilient energy systems. As the construction of Princess Elisabeth Island commences in 2024, it marks a pivotal moment in the EU's journey towards a greener and more secure energy future.