EU may miss 'blue energy' targets but rapid expansion could harm environment, auditors warn

A rapid expansion of offshore renewable energy is needed to enable the EU to reach its ambitious targets but this should not be pursued at all costs, European Court of Auditors warns

Germany is the EU country with the largest installed capacity of offshore renewable energy but the bloc has to rapidly expand such projects to reach its ambitious targets
Germany is the EU country with the largest installed capacity of offshore renewable energy but the bloc has to rapidly expand such projects to reach its ambitious targets

The EU may miss its ambitious growth targets for offshore renewable energy the European Court of Auditors warns amid fears a rapid expansion could harm marine environments.

With current installed capacity at only 16GW, the auditors say a rapid large-scale rollout is needed for the EU to reach its ambitious targets. The EU’s green plans foresee 61GW of installed offshore renewable energy (ORE) capacity by 2030 and 340GW by 2050.

Such a rapid increase will require considerable sea space and some €800 billion, mostly from private investment, the auditors say in a report published on Tuesday. “These targets may be difficult to achieve,” they add.

But a surge in ORE brings its own ‘green dilemma’ because of the potential damage to marine environments and conflicts with other marine uses, the auditors warn.

“While the EU strategy tries to reconcile ORE with biodiversity, the European Commission has not estimated its potential environmental effects, including species displacement and changes in population structure, food availability or migratory patterns, to name but a few,” the report says.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the EU’s energy independence and our seas may be part of the solution,” said Nikolaos Milionis, the ECA member who led the audit. “But the EU’s blue revolution should not be pursued at all costs: offshore renewables must not lead to any significant social or environmental damage.”

Offshore renewables only rarely co-exist with other areas of activity. In particular, conflicts with fisheries remain largely unresolved, and opposition to ORE often re-emerges as individual projects are assessed. Similarly, EU countries sharing the same waters rarely plan common projects. This results in missed opportunities to use scarce sea space more efficiently. Moreover, the socio-economic implications of offshore renewables development have not been studied in sufficient depth.

The auditors also note that risks to the supply of critical raw materials may slow down the rollout of offshore renewable energy in Europe. Currently, such materials are supplied almost entirely by China, which also plays a crucial role in manufacturing permanent magnets for wind turbine generators.

The EU’s dependence may create bottlenecks, and the auditors raise concerns about the security of supply amid current geopolitical tensions. Lengthy national permitting procedures represent another barrier. For instance, France has one of the longest lead-times for approving offshore wind installations, which can extend to 11 years.

Only last month, Malta opened a public consultation on a national policy for the deployment of offshore renewable energy.

The policy document identified six potential areas outside Malta’s 12-mile territorial waters for floating renewable energy projects with a particular emphasis on wind turbines. The six areas are situated in Malta’s exclusive economic zone around the islands.

After the document is finalised, possibly sometimes next year, tenders will be issued and bidders are expected to submit a technical offer that includes mooring, installation capacity, and timeline of project deliverables, procurement, commissioning, operation and decommissioning; and a financial offer with estimated budget and bid price.

The tendering procedure would grant specific rights and obligations in EEZ designated areas for new commercial offshore renewable project developments.

When unveiling the policy document, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli had described it as a testament to “government’s political willingness to go climate-neutral by 2050”. The policy will give potential investors peace of mind, she had said.

Offshore renewable energy can be generated by wind (bottom-fixed and floating), ocean (tidal and wave) and floating solar technologies. Currently, almost all offshore renewable energy in the EU is generated by wind technology. Germany has the largest offshore capacity of all EU countries (8.1GW at the end of 2022, mostly in the North Sea), followed by the Netherlands (3.2GW), Denmark and Belgium (both at around 2.3GW). Malta has no offshore renewable energy capacity as yet with the country’s share of renewable energy coming primarily from land-based household and commercial solar panels.

Almost €17 billon of EU support has flowed into the blue energy sector over the last 15 years, helping the technology to be developed and deployed but evidently more investment is required for the EU to reach its targets.