Eddie O’Connor’s keynote address at the International Conference on Ocean Energy in Dublin

“Offshore grid: The key enabler for marine renewables”

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

I would first like to thank the Conference organisers for their kind invitation to give this keynote address on the “Offshore grid: the key enabler for marine renewables”.

Next, I wish to congratulate Eoin Sweeney on bringing this important event to Dublin and, indeed, to thank him for all he has done in promoting marine energy these past years.

And, of course, I’d like to add to the many welcomes you have already received to this maritime city which is situated on beautiful Dublin Bay, where I like to go sea fishing whenever the weather and time permit.

The organisers invited me to speak in my capacity both as CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power and as a Founding Member of the “Friends of the Supergrid”. I am happy to offer my thoughts, which can be summarised in the thesis that a Supergrid is indispensable to the development of marine renewables.

Let me begin by explaining my involvement in the Supergrid. My company, Mainstream Renewable Power, develops wind and solar power on a global basis and we are the largest offshore developer in the world, with over 7,600MW in the pipeline. I believe strongly in the potential of offshore wind, so much so that ten years ago the company I had previously founded built the first, and only, Irish offshore wind farm. So, it was inevitable that when we established Mainstream we immediately sought to win a project in Round 3 of the UK’s offshore development programme.

In conjunction with Siemens Project Ventures, we formed the SMart Wind consortium and won the right to develop the Hornsea Zone, with a potential capacity of some 6,000MW. We are also developing the Horizont site in the German exclusive zone of the North Sea, which has a potential total capacity of 1,200MW. It is our ambition to link the two projects together in order to create the first leg of the Supergrid.

It’s self evident that without a custom built grid it will be impossible to exploit the full potential of marine energy, whether it be wind, wave or tidal.

In the absence of an offshore grid, we will be limited to connecting marine energy projects individually to the existing onshore grid, a laboured and complicated process which is totally dependent on the capacity of the onshore grid to absorb offshore generation. Usually the onshore grid is weak at the very point where it should be capable of taking renewable power ashore. This is a fatal defect which has to be overcome. The reality is that, at present, we don’t have a single grid which could handle marine renewables at scale and it is imperative we construct one without delay.

Nobody needs reminding why this has to be done. Global warming is a threat to the human species which has to be countered, although there is nothing we can do now to prevent temperatures rising beyond two degrees celsius, a situation that has arisen because of the insidious influence of vested interests in some countries. The projected rise in temperature threatens to wreck irreversible damage on the environment and so adds to the urgency of reducing Green House Gas emissions at a pace faster than envisaged. We have got to move towards sustainability with greater resolve than we are showing at present and to accelerate the transition to a low carbon society.

Central to that transition is the move from hydrocarbons to renewable energies in the generation of electricity. This is where marine renewables come in and the key engineering challenge is to ensure that the electricity generated offshore is transmitted onshore to load centres in a secure and cost effective manner. To meet that challenge, I proposed the creation of a Supergrid over a decade ago.

In order to put the Supergrid in context here are my thoughts about the energy future. The European economy will continue to grow over the decades ahead, despite the current economic depression. Demand for electricity will increase progressively, not just as a consequence of economic growth but, more fundamentally, because of a transformation within the economy itself. We are heading into the “electric economy” in which electricity will become the dominant source of energy. For example, by 2050 all surface transport will be powered by electricity, with the possible exception of some heavy commercial vehicles. Notwithstanding major advances in energy efficiency, the anticipated growth in electricity demand will be between two to three per cent per annum.

At an average growth rate of two per cent, electricity demand will double by 2050; at a three per cent growth rate, it will more than treble.

If we are to slash carbon emissions, as the scientists tell us we should if we wish to save the planet, then all of the increased demand in electricity will have to be met from renewable energy and all existing coal, oil and gas fired power generation will have to be phased out.

Consequently, I envisage that by 2050 the generation mix will be:

50% wind
30% solar
20% other renewables and maybe some nuclear.

Growth rates of two and three per cent in electricity demand allow us to put lower and upper limits on the new generation capacity needed by 2050. A simple extrapolation of current generation capacity at these rates, and assuming an average capacity factor of 35%, indicate that we will need to install between 1.2m and 1.8m MW of wind by 2050.

But even the most optimistic forecasts for onshore wind are limited to only 200,000MW by 2050. Planning and political obstacles are intensifying and we are running out of suitable sites. This means that between 1m and 1.6m megawatts of offshore wind will have to be installed over the next forty years.

At an average cost of €3m per MW the total investment will be between €3 trillion and €4.8 trillion. This is a gigantic investment and will be the biggest ever spend in the EU and will be the largest European construction project in history. In addition, of course, there will be significant investment in wave and tidal power.

To enable these huge investments in marine renewables we need a Supergrid, which I have previously defined as:

“An electricity transmission system, mainly based on direct current, designed to facilitate large scale sustainable power generation in remote areas for transmission to centres of consumption, one of whose fundamental attributes will be the enhancement of the market in electricity”.

In the case of Europe, the “remote areas” referred to consist of the seas off the North Eastern and Western coasts. The centres of consumption are the maritime countries of northern Europe; in the North Sea, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and the Baltic States; in the Atlantic, the UK, Ireland and France.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, not only are we tasked with building a grid of enormous proportions, linking as many as half a million turbines together, but we are required to build it offshore. Unlike the US or China, which will also have to build Supergrids, we Europeans will have to build ours at sea.

For a grid stretching across tens of thousands of square kilometres of ocean we need to introduce what we in Mainstream call the Supernode, which is a key enabler. Now the Supernode is a junction on the Supergrid that is used as a collector and/or distributor of large scale electrical energy. It is based on both AC and DC technologies, using the individual strengths of each to best advantage. The AC is used to collect the energy from large off-shore power stations and the DC to transmit this energy to distant load centres. The DC is then converted back to AC for connection to existing transmission and distribution systems.

We propose to accomplish this task by using many Supernodes connected in a DC Supergrid so as to allow multidirectional power flows, depending on supply and demand. Transmission from the offshore power stations to the land will be by HVDC cables, which is an already proven technology and which is being used at present in the North Sea and onshore in China, where it covers distances of up to 2,000 km.

I should say in respect of the Supernode that we have completed a design and have submitted tenders for research assistance which I hope will be forthcoming.

There are other technical challenges to be overcome, for example our proposed Supernode design will need to be enhanced by the development of a DC circuit breaker and there is also need for a multi-node control system for the DC grid. Another formidable task is the creation of an interface between the offshore grid and the established grids on land. There is a great deal of electrical engineering to be done in linking the two.

On the construction side we have already come up with innovative approaches to generating wind power at sea, such as creating a standard 500MW power station which can be replicated in modular fashion. It would have the merit of using standard construction technologies, uniform components and a common approach to the layout of the turbines which would lower costs, enhance building efficiencies and simplify construction. This is important because we will need a minimum of two thousand such power stations.

From this outline of the offshore grid you can begin to see how we link these 500MW power stations stretching over thousands of square kilometres of ocean into a single grid , one that will provide Europe with a secure supply of electricity generated from an energy source that is clean, renewable and cost free. The benefits from such a grid are so self evident that they need no explanation, except for one I would like to stress.

The Supergrid will directly benefit the consumer because it will do away with national electricity markets and create one European wide market instead. Power will be routed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction using the Supergrid as a common resource, thereby providing a most elegant solution to the electricity market fragmentation that bedevils Europe, penalises the consumer by imposing monopoly prices and weakens business competitiveness by increasing the cost base. For me, this is the most attractive benefit.

In order to promote the Supergrid, some colleagues and I created the “Friends of the Supergrid”, which now consists of twenty-six major companies, including five of the top ten in the world. All the participating companies see massive opportunities in creating a pan European grid and are working together to present ‘cradle to grave’ solutions to policy makers.

We have decided to cooperate together because the Supergrid project is of such complexity that it will need our combined intelligence and expertise to take it through the various phases of construction from start to completion. We have already identified seven discrete segments in the project but I will only take two by way of example, starting with port facilities.

This may seem a strange place to start but we are dealing with the task of building at sea because while the turbines are manufactured on land they have to be transported by sea to the point of installation. Here we have an immediate problem arising from the size of the individual turbines, and also because of the sheer numbers that have to be assembled and loaded onto ships. I can see no alternative but to develop completely new ports around our coasts as is already happening in the UK, Germany and Denmark.

The second example is shipping. To construct the Supergrid we will have to design and build a flotilla of new special purpose vessels. There is huge potential here for innovation in designing, building and equipping a complete range of ships from the heavy duty craft to fast speed shuttles.

These examples confirm what a recent report from the UK Green Energy Council concluded: that there is huge employment potential in the development of the green economy and I would like to make a start right now. I believe in living in the now and making things happen. That is why Mainstream is developing a project called the “Energy Bridge” in which electricity generated in the midlands of Ireland will be directly exported into the British grid. The business proposition is simple: Ireland has surplus wind power while Britain has a shortage. It makes sense to trade, as we have done for centuries in agriculture.

We intend to construct some 5,000MW of wind power by 2020, beginning with 1,400MW by 2017. To collect and transmit the electricity generated by the wind farms we will build the first Supernode and so will be able to test the design in conditions far more benign than those at sea. Furthermore, we will also learn about the use of HVDC cabling and of building under the sea bed so as to mirror the reliability of onshore grids.

In short, the “Energy Bridge” is not only a viable business proposition in its own right but is also a proving ground for key components of the Supergrid.

But this vision does not stop at 5,000MW, rather it is the beginning of British/Irish cooperation in creating a common electricity market which can be linked with similar projects in the North Sea. If handled properly, I foresee this island exporting green electricity into a market of over five hundred million Europeans and if that market is as big as I forecast for 2050 then the export potential for this country, and other maritime states, is greater than any other comparable industry.

I offer you Ireland as a case study in what renewable energy means for economic development. The “Energy Bridge” alone would need 1,600 towers, 5,000 blades, 1,600 nacelles, 10 km of medium voltage cable, 600 km of HVDC cable, 100 sub-stations, 1,600 transformers from low to medium voltage, two massive AC to DC transformer stations, as well as the construction of hundreds of kilometres of road, the use of hundreds of metres cubed of foundations in erecting the turbines and thousands of tonnes of steel for turbine manufacture.

As for employment, the European experience is that eight jobs are created per megawatt, indicating that the “Energy Bridge” will produce 40,000 jobs in all and, if we Irish are good enough, then most of that employment can be created here, and much of it would take place in the midlands where the need for jobs is at its starkest.

With the proper national policy, investment will flow into manufacturing facilities here in Ireland but the government must articulate a vision for renewables and come forward with a concrete plan that goes beyond banalities. In particular, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA must re-orientate themselves to the new green reality that will progressively dominate the global economy. We should be part of the first wave in green development and so create a vibrant energy export sector. That is my ambition for this country and for this industry.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I trust I have explained why the Supergrid is the key enabler for marine renewables. All that I have said about wind is equally true for wave and tidal power. And what I have said of the “Energy Bridge” applies in even greater measure to the whole of Europe. What I have said about Ireland has an equally positive message for every region represented here.

The peoples of Europe have to confront the threat of global warming and do it courageously and with vision. Above all, that means replacing hydrocarbons with renewables in the generation of electricity.

I have said that the great bulk of those renewables will be marine based and that to enable the full exploitation of their potential a Supergrid will have to built.

I hope this line of reasoning has made sense to you and I trust that over the next few days you will make great progress in advancing our common ambitions for the future of marine renewables.

I thank you for your attention.