Norway: a sustainable northern power house

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Norway: a sustainable northern power house
Norway is looking to wind power to underpin its energy transition and provide new streams of export revenue

Norway, a relatively sparsely-populated, north European country which stretches into the Arctic circle, is blessed with natural resources both of the fossil fuel kind and those of a more sustainable nature. While a major exporter of oil and gas, almost all of the country’s electricity is supplied by hydropower, giving it Europe’s lowest carbon emissions grid. The country has 1,681 hydropower plants, which, in 2020, provided 88% of electricity supply.

Moreover, while the rest of the world engages in a rapid search for new methods of electricity storage, Norway’s unique geography provides more than 1,000 hydro reservoirs, allowing the storage of up to 70% of annual electricity consumption. This flexibility means Norway does not have to rely on fossil fuel power generation as a back-up for fluctuations in rainfall and snow melt, which affects hydropower output. It also provides a ready-made storage system to integrate other variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Surplus power

Owing to its hydropower resources, Norway has a surplus of renewable electricity, which means its prices are amongst the cheapest in the world, providing two major opportunities, one external and the other internal — exports to neighbouring countries and beyond, and, second, the expansion of domestic electricity consumption in heating, transport and in offshore oil and gas operations, displacing domestic fossil fuel use. In the second half of 2020, Norway exported 14 TWh of electricity, making it Europe’s largest power exporter.

Norway is part of the synchronous inter-Nordic system, which includes Sweden, Finland and eastern Denmark. The inter-Nordic system has direct current interconnections with western Denmark and to Germany, Poland and Lithuania via Sweden, as well as from Norway to the Netherlands and from Finland to Estonia and Russia. However, Norway’s transmission system operator Statnett, in cooperation with Dutch grid company TenneT, in December completed NordLink, which is a more than 500 km, 1,400 MW subsea cable linking the Norwegian and German electricity markets directly for the first time.

In addition, North Sea Link, which is about 720km with 1,400 MW capacity, will connect the Norwegian and UK markets. Completion of what will be the world’s longest subsea interconnector is expected later this year. Overall, the capacity of interconnectors between the Nordic power system and other systems is expected to increase by more than 50% by 2025.

Norway has also embraced electric mobility like no other country. According to Norway’s Electric Vehicle Association, by last year, 54% of the country’s passenger car market was fully electric, the highest proportion worldwide by some margin. Supported by a range of incentives, the government has set a national goal for all new cars sold to be zero emissions by 2025.

Norway’s transition dilemma

However, Norway faces a major dilemma; it is an oil and gas exporter and global demand for fossil fuels is expected to peak sometime before 2050. The country must prepare for a post-fossil fuel era, finding new industries to replace its oil and gas sector in order to sustain high quality jobs and state income.

Increasing generation capacity in a system with an existing surplus of renewable energy and ample storage may appear unnecessary but it will underpin the energy transition at home and boost sustainable electricity exports, providing new revenue streams to replace the expected long-term decline in oil and gas income.

This is beneficial all-round as cheap, sustainable Norwegian electricity flows into other European markets more dependent on coal and gas for power generation. Interconnectors also strengthen security of electricity supply as transition economies increase their reliance of energy delivered by wire.

Wind resource

As with many other north European countries, Norway’s wind power potential is substantial both on and offshore, but it remains relatively unexploited. Onshore wind capacity doubled between 2017 and 2019 and by mid-2020 had reached 2,662 MW, but the sector has run into increasing opposition over the speed of its development. A hold was placed on new permitting in 2019 and new rules introduced last year which are expected to slow the sector’s expansion. However, Norway sees greater possibilities offshore, where it can leverage its long experience in the oil and gas sector.

A study commissioned by Export Credit Norway and published in November 2020 said that offshore wind could become one of the country’s most important export industries. In an accelerated growth scenario, the study estimated offshore wind could deliver up to €12.9 billion a year annually to Norwegian companies.

Floating offshore wind

Norway has been a floating offshore wind pioneer, developing a prototype turbine, which served as the basis for the Hywind wind farm off the coast of Scotland, the first to go into commercial production. Norway’s own first offshore wind farm will be the world’s largest floating wind farm. Construction of the 88 MW Hywind Tampen project started in October and is designed to supply 35% of the annual power needs of five platforms on the Snorre and Gullfaks oil and gas fields. Norway’s coastline is known for its deep waters and stunning fjords, but there are also conventional offshore wind opportunities.

A Strategic Environmental Assessment carried out by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate in 2013 looked at 15 zones and estimated total capacity for both-fixed bottom installations and floating wind farms at 4,600-12,600 MW, which could generate 19-50 TWh/yr. At the high end this would represent about one-third of Norwegian electricity consumption. The 15 zones represent only a small proportion of the overall potential.

Moving ahead

Last year, the government decided to open for applications two of the 15 zones – Utsira Nord and Sørlige Nordsjø II. Utsira Nord has average wind speeds of 10.2 m/s about 22 km offshore, but water depths of 185 to 280 metres mean it is best suited to floating wind projects. Sørlige Nordsjø II was the largest zone considered and lies 140 km offshore with average wind speeds of 10.5 m/s. The nearest grid connection is 200 km away. The zone lies in water depths of 40-70 m, making both fixed-bottom or floating wind farms possible.

Norwegian companies are already active in other European offshore wind markets and further afield. Development of its domestic resource should provide a test bed for innovation, particularly in the area of floating offshore wind, as well as providing more electricity to power the energy transition both at home and across Europe as new cross border transmission infrastructure is put in place.

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