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Offshore Wind Journal

Space constraints see Belgium look to its neighbours

Mon 30 Jul 2018 by David Foxwell

Space constraints see Belgium look to its neighbours
Designated zones for Belgian offshore windfarms – spatial planning for post-2020 windfarms could be tricky

Things are getting a little cramped in Belgium’s offshore wind space. There is still plenty of development potential in Belgian waters, but in the long term Belgium’s offshore wind industry is going to be space-constrained

Unlike some of its near neighbours in the North Sea, where tens of GW of offshore wind are being planned by some countries, Belgium’s offshore wind capacity will be limited by the small size of its territorial waters. But since the Belgian Government decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2025, it needs to focus increasingly on renewable energy and offshore wind in particular.

It will be some time before offshore windfarms have been developed on a sufficiently large scale to prevent further development, and new larger turbines could mean windfarms of greater capacity can be built in smaller zones, but the constraints that lack of space place on Belgian offshore windfarms are already becoming apparent.

The Belgian part of the North Sea is one of the most intensively used seas in the world. Shipping, tourism, fisheries, aggregates exploitation and offshore windfarms all have to coexist with longstanding users of the sea such as Belgium’s leading ports and harbours, which makes marine spatial planning in the Belgian part of the North Sea a complex process. The smooth functioning of the ports of Zeebrugge and Antwerp are particularly important to the Belgian economy and constraints on other users around the ports are stringent and unlikely to be modified to accommodate offshore wind or other users of the sea.

Despite a relative limited marine territory, Belgium has been one of the most proactive European countries in offshore wind and around 238 km˛, that is 7 % of the Belgian North Sea, is already devoted to renewable energy under a Marine Spatial Plan of March 2014.

In line with EU objectives, the Belgian Government supports the development of renewable energy sources and would like renewables to provide 13% of the energy consumed in the country by 2020. Wind energy will play a key role in the country’s future renewable energy plans, with more than half of the electricity produced by windfarms expected to be produced offshore in the Belgian North Sea. A number of small-scale offshore windfarms that have already been approved are due to be completed by 2019-2020.

Despite the need for offshore wind, the rate of increase in offshore wind capacity in the country stalled recently, and it seemed questionable whether a 2020 target of 2 GW of offshore wind would be met (Belgium currently has installed capacity of slightly in excess of 870 MW).

Negotiations with industrial consumers, mainly led by energy-intensive companies, and investors on an appropriate level of support for offshore wind led to reform of the subsidy scheme for offshore wind and a new, less generous framework was approved by the government in June 2016. This reduced the level of subsidy for two offshore windfarms being built in Belgian waters, Rentel and Norther.

As a result of the recent downward price in the Dutch offshore wind sector, the Belgian Government has been under pressure to cut subsidies for the sector further. It reached an agreement with developers in October2017 for three remaining concessions for offshore windfarms – Northwester 2, Seastar and Mermaid, the management of the latter two of which is now being merged – on a price of €79/MWhr (US$92/MWhr). This is considerably lower than the subsidy level committed to two offshore wind projects two years ago (€129.8 and €124/MWhr).

There has been some better news more recently, however, with a plan to more than double offshore wind capacity in the short term and, potentially, quadruple it in the longer term. April saw the authorities in Belgium announce plans for offshore wind energy that included targets of 2.2 GW by 2020 and to 4 GW by 2030. It currently has four offshore windfarms totalling 871 MW. “The North Sea is a crucial partner in the transition towards renewable energy,” Belgian state secretary for the North Sea, Philippe De Backer said at the time the announcement was made.

Belgian Offshore Platform (BOP) secretary general Annemie Vermeylen told OWJ the Belgian Government wants to phase out two nuclear power plants that account for 5.9 GW of capacity. The reactors at Doel and Tihange have experienced a series of technical problems and are due to close by 2025. Belgium needs wind energy to replace them but is a relatively small country with little room for additional onshore capacity. That makes offshore wind even more important.

With new offshore windfarms urgently required, Belgium needs a new marine spatial plan for the period after 2020. This is currently being discussed and once completed will lead to new concessions and tenders.

The federal government earmarked an area of 211 km˛ for developing new windfarms after 2020, which should result in offshore power production doubling to 4 GW, but if a tender is not launched in good time for the post-2020 windfarms, a gap will open up between constructing projects already approved and the next round of Belgian offshore projects. Although well-known Belgian companies and contractors are picking up work outside the country, Ms Vermeylen said, a standstill – even for a short period of time – would not be good for the supply chain.

Ms Vermeylen told OWJ there are three conditions that need to be met for post-2020 projects to go ahead as planned and for final investment decisions to be made sufficiently early to avoid a gap in work offshore.

An agreement on new spatial planning is right at the top of that list. “The industry needs an agreement on spatial planning in 2019,” she said.

The marine plan lays out principles, goals, objectives, a long-term vision and spatial policy choices for managing the Belgian territorial sea and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Management actions, indicators and targets addressing marine protected areas and managing activity in the Belgian North Sea all need to be considered and reviewed every six years. Once adopted, the plan is legally binding. Fishing and offshore wind inevitably come into sharp focus wherever marine spatial planning is being undertaken.

The draft version of the plan for new offshore wind zones came in for some criticism because potential developers felt the zones, which are close to French waters, identified were too dense.  

Ms Vermeylen told OWJ the BOP has been looking for a zone with an area of around 400 km2. The 211-km zone identified by the government obviously falls far short of that. She explained that too dense a zone for the new windfarms would inevitably mean the wake effect around turbines would adversely affect yield from windfarms built there. Developers would need to take into account that a very compressed zone would prevent them from optimising the configuration of any windfarms built in it and that could drive up rather than reduce costs.

Another looming issue to be addressed is what form future tenders for offshore windfarms will take and the selection criteria used. To date, renewable energy projects in Belgium have generally been supported by Green Certificates (GCs) issued by market regulators (in the case of offshore windfarms, the federal market regulator CREG). Producers either sell GCs to electricity suppliers, or offer them for sale to Elia, the Belgian transmission system operator (TSO).

For post-2020 windfarms, some form of auction process will almost certainly be used, but Ms Vermeylen said it is unclear yet how support for the next round of offshore windfarms in Belgium waters will be structured. The advent of zero-subsidy offshore windfarms in other countries also needs to be taken into account.

Although Mr De Backer has been fairly bullish on the idea of zero-subsidy tenders and has gone on record to the effect that new capacity will be offered via public tenders not backed by subsidies, the BOP believes much remains to be finalised and an agreement will be more nuanced than recent statements have suggested. “Every site for offshore wind is different,” she noted.

The situation is complicated by the fact that May 2019 will see a general election take place in Belgium, which might mean a decision on the exact make-up of the tenders is pushed to the right and nothing is agreed until after it has taken place.

The third precondition affecting the development of offshore windfarms post-2020 is one that has become an issue in several European countries, grid connection. In November 2017, TSO Elia inaugurated the Stevin high-voltage line between Zeebrugge and Zomergem to transport energy generated by new offshore windfarms to the mainland and facilitate the exchange of energy with the UK via subsea Nemo interconnector from 2019 onwards.

The Stevin line will transmit electricity generated offshore to the mainland via a modular offshore grid (MOG) to be built by Elia 40 km off the coast that will bundle together cables from future Belgian offshore installations. Stevin will also enable other forms of sustainable generation in the coastal region to be connected to it and guarantee enhanced electricity supply in West and East Flanders. The MOG will connect offshore windfarms such as Rentel, Northwester 2, Mermaid and Seastar to the Belgian grid and could create opportunities for future offshore wind development and interconnections with neighbouring countries. It is due to become operational in Q3 2019 and Elia has already undertaken seabed survey campaigns to investigate soil conditions along the cable route and at the platform location. Detailed design of the offshore platform is currently being undertaken, and other tenders for the main construction contracts are ongoing.

The problem is that Stevin is already “full” said Ms Vermeylen and a new grid connection is needed by the time the post-2020 offshore windfarms are in operation – by 2025 at the latest.

“Marine spatial planning is difficult in Belgium,” Ms Vermeylen concluded. “It will be difficult in the long run to find more space for offshore wind energy.” 

To get an idea of how small Belgium’s EEZ is, compare it with the Netherlands, where plans for offshore wind development are powering ahead. The Netherlands’ EEZ is 15.5 times larger.

The future, she suggested, might therefore lie in trilateral ‘cluster’ projects of the type already being discussed by Belgium with its near-neighbours the UK and the Netherlands, such as Nautilus, a second interconnector between the UK and Belgium and a proposal to connect a large, upcoming offshore windfarm in UK waters to Belgium or the Netherlands.

Commission approves merger

In July the European Commission approved the merger of the Mermaid and Seastar offshore windfarms, a move that will generate scale effects and enable cost reduction. Financial close for the new company formed by the merger, to be known as Seamade NV, is expected at the end of 2018 with construction to start in 2019.

Seamade will be responsible for developing the Mermaid and Seastar offshore wind zones, which together have a capacity of 478.2 MW, approximately 25% of the currently allocated offshore wind capacity in Belgium. The merger will allow both projects to be financed in a single transaction.  Seamade said it hopes the regulatory framework for the project, which was agreed with the Belgian Government at the end of 2017, will soon be implemented after approval by the European Commission and publication of relevant Royal Decrees. The project’s aim is to achieve financial close by the end of this year. Construction could then start in 2019 and the windfarm could be fully operational by the end of 2020.            

Seamade chief executive Mathias Verkest said the merger would create synergies and scale effects that would facilitate cost reduction. The windfarms will use 58 Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy turbines on monopile foundations and two offshore substations which will connect to Elia’s modular offshore grid.

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