All of the Baltic Sea states, which are part of the European Union and include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden, are banking on offshore wind to wean them off a reliance on fossil fuels.
Lithuania, for example, wants to have at least 700 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind farms in operation by 2030, while Latvia and Estonia are eying similar projects in the Gulf of Riga and near the island of Saaremaa. Meanwhile, Denmark and Germany are planning to develop the Bornholm Energy Island project, which would entail the development of a 3 gigawatt (GW) offshore wind farm by 2030.
And these are but a few examples of the planned projects. In all, it is expected that the Baltic Sea states would have a total of 19 GW of offshore capacity by 2030. This is roughly seven times the current figure.
To expedite the clean energy transition and to make better use of excess power, some of these wind farms might also eventually be used to produce green hydrogen. Last year Finnish and Swedish gas transmission system operators and two other energy companies agreed to explore the prospects of developing joint offshore hydrogen pipeline infrastructure. It would be called the Baltic Sea Hydrogen Collector, and it could connect Finland, Sweden, and Germany by 2030.
But whether the hydrogen is produced offshore or on land, or if it is produced at all, there is no doubt that within a decade, the Baltic Sea will be dense with countless wind turbines and thousands of kilometers of submarine power cables. While this is welcome news from a decarbonization and a security of supply perspective, it also introduces new challenges.
Energy installations at sea and subsea transmission infrastructure are at risk from a wide array of threats. These include anchoring, trawling or even terrorist attacks. However, there is also an even greater concern that hostile regimes could target this infrastructure to disrupt electricity flows.
Last September’s attacks against the Nord Stream gas pipelines have highlighted that no energy infrastructure in the Baltic Sea is safe from sabotage. Explosives similar to those that have pierced the concrete-reinforced steel pipelines of Nord Stream 1 and 2 could easily destroy electricity infrastructure as well.
If fact, a hostile regime would likely not even need to resort to using warships, sophisticated deep-diving submersibles, or drones for undersea sabotage missions. Chances are that a fishing trawler with a large anchor or a modified trawl would be sufficient to cut a submarine power cable in two.
Considering the size of the Baltic Sea and the depths at which underwater energy infrastructure lies, it might take weeks, if not months, to be repaired. Meanwhile, attribution could be difficult, if not outright impossible. This has been the case with Nord Stream, where suspicions of Russian involvement exist but are not proven (despite, for example, the certainty that Russia has highly developed subsea capabilities.)
Wind farms, both onshore and offshore, are also at risk from cyber-attacks. In February, a German wind turbine maker, Enercon, lost remote connection to 5,800 turbines following a large-scale disruption of satellite links. In April, another company, Deutsche Windtechnik, also lost control of roughly 2,000 turbines because of a cyber-attack. While the wind turbines were not damaged during these incidents, these attacks illustrate just how vulnerable their computer systems are.
It should be said that offshore energy infrastructure will still make Baltic Sea states more secure than they are now. The increase in decentralized power generation capability will lead to greater energy resilience; after all, it is more difficult to simultaneously take down dozens of offshore wind farms or submarine power cables than to blow up a single pipeline or to weaponize energy supplies.
But while the growing offshore energy infrastructure is generally better than what preceded it, there will be a greater geographic area for potential attackers.
As a result, it would be wise for the private and public sectors to shore up their energy infrastructure protection efforts. In practical terms, this means a need for more resources dedicated to surveillance, patrolling, and cyber defenses for energy infrastructure at sea and on land. It will be equally important to have readily available backup equipment in storage so that if the infrastructure is damaged, repair teams could be dispatched at a moment’s notice.
The mass deployment of offshore wind projects will have an immense impact on the Baltic Sea states. Wind farms will make energy systems cleaner, more robust, and less reliant on supplies from abroad.
And yet, energy companies, grid operators, and authorities will have plenty of reasons to stay awake at night.
Lukas Trakimavičius is a CEPA 2022 James S. Denton Fellow. He works at the research and lessons learned division of the NATO Energy Security Centre of Excellence. Previously he held positions at NATO and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are made in a purely personal capacity.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.