THE BLOG

A Northern Seas Grid? Setting Out a Plan for Jobs, Investment and Lower Energy Bills

15/01/2016 22:46 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Speaking in the European Parliament this week, I made the point that the North East is perfectly placed to gain from greater energy cooperation across the North Sea. We provided the fuel for the industrial revolution, today we have the skills, industries and geography to provide the fuel for many future generations. We have to seize the moment.

Therefore, I have joined together with a cross-party group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing coastal constituencies surrounding the North and Irish seas. This week we launched a manifesto for a Northern Seas electricity grid. Our aim is to build the political support for investment and infrastructure investment. Energy Ministers will be meeting in The Netherlands on the 4 February to set out a joint plan. MEPs have got in first to steer the plan putting our constituents at the heart of it.

The development of stronger regional cooperation in the Northern Seas will help create local jobs and growth, reduce costs and ensure energy security, as well as EU technology leadership in off-shore wind and other emerging marine renewables. Such cooperation will also help the EU to implement and achieve the commitments made in December at Paris as part of the COP21 climate agreement, helping to limit global warming to under 1.5°C.

Although oil prices continue to fall, latest figures show a huge push towards increasing our renewable energy capabilities across the globe. World investment, mainly in solar and wind, went up by 17% to £180 billion in 2014 alone.

With North East workers in the North Sea offshore oil and gas industry and its supply chain hit hard by the low oil price, we have a skilled workforce who could be redirected and retrained to build and maintain such a North East renewables grid. They understand building infrastructure in turbulent seas. They have developed a common North Sea safety code which could inform new safety rules for integrated renewables.

Within the European Parliament we are already on the front-foot in promoting our role in delivering the Energy Union. On 15 December 2015, our resolution on improved electricity interconnection stated that "offshore wind in the North Sea region has the potential to generate over 8 % of Europe's power supply by 2030". Regional cooperation on technical elements of the energy system in the Northern Seas has already been taking place for a number years. This has mostly come under the North Sea Countries' Offshore Grid Initiative (NSCOGI), established in 2010, although in 2014 the EU adopted the Maritime Spatial Planning directive, an instrument that favours consistent cross-border planning.

The NSCOGI five year celebration conference in Ostende on 23rd October 2015 was an occasion for Member States to renew their commitment, while the Belgian Minister Marie-Christine Marghem expressed her intention to propose a new action plan for the coming five years. NSCOGI represents a solid foundation for further cooperation. Nevertheless, new cooperation structures such as a High Level Group are necessary to provide more political direction and cooperation should be broadened beyond grid issues, to include the deployment of a coordinated at-scale offshore wind programme, bringing together regulators, industry, trade unions, and other key stakeholders.

Connectivity is the key issue to realise our ambitions. The states surrounding the North Sea generate enough electricity to supply the energy needs of every home in the European Union. Over a quarter of this energy comes from renewable sources, yet a lack of infrastructure means that states have few means by which to pass it between them. And since renewable energy cannot be stored, if it is not used straight away it is lost - at an estimated total of 126 million kWh ² per year.

That's why last year's announcement of plans to install the world's longest subsea electricity cable by 2021 is so welcome. The cable will connect the UK to Norway for the first time and will mean that nearly three quarters of a million British homes will benefit from Norway's highly developed hydropower capabilities. Importantly, installing the interconnector, maintaining it and building the infrastructure to support it will create local, skilled jobs. British consumers will see their energy bills go down, too.

We have a prime opportunity to take advantage of these developments. Let's grab it.