Offshore wind farms – energy independence in five years

For almost ten years, Estonia has watched renewable energy capacities being developed elsewhere in Europe, including the construction of hundreds of onshore and dozens of offshore wind farms every year. The energy and security crisis caused by Russia changed the situation dramatically, and now Estonia has to act quickly in order not to miss the train.

Estonia’s geographical location, sparse population, and climate create favorable conditions for the development of renewable energy production. Last year, the Energy Roadmap of Green Tiger initiative was compiled in cooperation with local researchers and entrepreneurs operating in the energy market, to which Utilitas experts also contributed. The working group analyzed the use and production of electricity, heat, and transport fuels as a whole and proposed a path to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. One of the main conclusions was that it is very important for Estonia to add more electricity production capacity because the demand for electricity will increase extensively in the coming decades – consumption growth will be seen both in the transport and heat sectors.

Wind energy is key

In Estonia, most electricity is still produced from fossil fuels, such as oil shale. Due to the insufficient establishment of production capacities, the inhibited competitiveness of oil shale electricity due to high CO2 prices, and the depreciation of old production equipment, Estonia has shifted from an exporter of electricity to an importer of electricity. In 2021, local power plants produced 6.3 TWh of electricity, but consumption in Estonia reached nearly 9 TWh. The share of renewable energy has increased, but it still covered only 27% of final consumption last year.

Utilitas supports Green Tiger’s ambitious electricity production scenario and the accelerated construction of new renewable energy production capacities. The development of wind energy is of key importance because this is the fastest way to get the required amount of new, year-round electricity capacity.

Provided that the state and local governments cooperate effectively with developers and speed up planning and permit procedures, the volume of onshore wind farms could be quadrupled in five years compared to the current level, and offshore wind farms with a total capacity of 2.7 GW could be built. It would mean that the same number of wind turbines should be built on land that already exists, about 145. A total of 180 offshore wind turbines with a capacity of 15 MW each would be enough to achieve the set goals. Such additional production capacity would enable Estonia to become a net exporter of electricity, help to achieve the goals of balanced carbon neutrality in the entire energy sector, and, together with other investments, create the prerequisites for avoiding future electricity price shocks.

Another advantage of wind farms for renewable energy production is that they can produce energy both day and night, in summer and in winter. In winter, when the need for electricity is higher, their performance is the best in our climate. Offshore wind farms, which are more expensive to build and maintain compared to onshore ones, have a particularly high potential, as these are more productive due to the winds blowing at sea.

The Saare-Liivi offshore wind farm being developed by Utilitas starts producing electricity from the moment the wind speed is 3 m/s, which is barely perceptible to humans. It should also be taken into account that the wind in higher air layers is much more constant and stronger than at sea level. In 2028, the Saare-Liivi offshore wind farm should produce an estimated 5 TWh of electricity, which is about 60% of Estonia’s current annual consumption.

Offshore wind farms may still sound innovative in Estonia, but more than 5,000 offshore wind farms have been installed in European countries so far, and Denmark’s first offshore wind farm was opened in 1991. Offshore wind farms play a particularly important role in the production of electricity in Great Britain and Denmark. Due to today’s global energy crisis, there is a boom in the construction of offshore wind farms in Europe, as well as in Asia and America, and in the following years, the production of wind energy at sea will increase exponentially.

Estonia has excellent conditions for building offshore wind farms – we have a shallow sea with excellent wind conditions. This means that wind farms are easier to maintain, and the turbines are in operation 97% to 98% of the time. With the addition of renewable energy capacities, electricity storage solutions are also under construction. This field is developing extremely fast all over the world, and there are already several potential solutions under development in Estonia.

100% renewable energy country

Although offshore wind farms have been developed in Estonia since 2007, none of the projects have yet reached construction. The reasons are primarily regulatory (long processing of planning and permits), but also economic (long investment payback period) and human (opposition of locals to new wind farms).

Russia’s aggression and the indispensable green transition in energetics provide a new opportunity to finally implement such ambitious projects. These are crises that must not be ignored. Estonia currently has the opportunity to achieve energy independence and switch to renewable energy. Investments in offshore wind farms amounting to billions of euros boost economic growth, revive local employment, leave hundreds of millions of euros in the national economy every year, and create the conditions for the emergence of new industries. With the construction of offshore wind farms, we could create a situation where all electricity consumption in Estonia is covered by renewable energy in five years. Estonia’s new international success story could be a 100% renewable energy country.

COMMENT: Rene Tammist, Board member of Utilitas Wind

The development of our Saare-Liiv offshore wind farm is progressing rapidly. Utilitas Wind has signed contracts to carry out the environmental studies outlined in the decision to initiate the superficies license for the Saare-Liivi offshore wind farm, and most of the studies are already ongoing. At the beginning of August, Utilitas Wind sent the environmental impact assessment program to the TTJA for publication, and the public display and discussions of the program are scheduled to take place this fall.

Utilitas has also submitted applications for the development of wind farms in the areas determined for wind energy development in maritime spatial planning. Now that national maritime spatial planning has been established, we believe that we can also move forward with wind energy developments in these areas.

Offshore wind farms are a new concept in Estonia, and this whole process requires the close cooperation of many parties. We expect cooperation and understanding from the authorities regarding the necessity of offshore wind farms. All parties should now think about how to speed up the process of building wind farms and renewable energy capacities in general.

The only way to lower the price of electricity is to build new production capacities. All permits could and should be processed faster. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission drew up the REPowerEU plan, in which member states were advised to significantly speed up permit procedures, for example, instead of many different permits, one consolidated permit procedure for offshore wind farms could be set. Courage is needed to make decisions. Once the required studies have been conducted and mitigation measures have been determined, where needed, the impact assessment should be approved and the necessary permits for construction issued. It is very important to solve network connection issues. The developed network is a social resource that should be able to be used by those who are actually ready for it. Currently, too much capacity is simply booked.

The article was published on September 1, 2022 in the special edition of Äripäev “Kõik energiast”