Bergen Offshore Wind Centre (BOW)

A tipping point for offshore wind and coexistence of marine space?

In this text Håvard Haarstad and Dorothy J. Dankel discuss the potential tipping and tripping points in offshore wind.

Illustration of tipping and tripping points
E.Zoe Walker

Main content

The past few years offshore wind has seen several different dramatic upturns with more efficient technology, lower costs and strong political will to open offshore areas and start projects. A fascinating concept in social science is the “tipping point”, a term from systems thinking used casually in studies of sustainability and energy transitions. The popular science book “The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell refers to it as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” We can understand it as the moment when several different tendencies converge, reinforce one another, and create quick and rapid change.

Over the past few years, the winds have been changing in favor of offshore wind farms. The combination of more efficient technologies, lower development and running costs, and stronger political will to open offshore areas has resulted in the onset of more projects. This movement towards renewable energy is moving Norwegian society towards a ‘tipping point’, in this case the point of change between reliance on fossil fuels and reliance on renewable energy. Will different forces converge with enough momentum to reinforce one another, creating quick and rapid energy transformation in Norway?

For offshore wind in Norway, it appears that we may be arriving at a tipping point. Many have suggested that the publication of the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s much publicized Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector in May 2021 (you know, the one that said there is no need to invest in new fossil fuel developments) as a clear sign of this. The fact that the IEA, which has traditionally been conservative in its prospects for renewables has shifted to this favorable position on renewables may suggest that we are in a new era. In Norway, the public favors this new green era but has a strong ‘Not-in-my-back-yard' response to onshore wind which will probably result in a focus on wind power generation at sea.

In fact, evidence of this new area, even beyond Norway, has been accumulating for some time. The EU Green Deal has signaled plans for strong investment in offshore wind. In the US, President Biden has unlocked plans for offshore wind as part of a well-funded infrastructure and clean energy package. Both energy companies and financial investors have increased investment in offshore wind developments as well, which will likely increase the rate of technological innovation and further decrease costs. In addition, the idea of climate risk seems to have hit home in financial sectors, meaning that many investors worry that large oil companies may lose value quickly if (or when) the world crests this tipping point and becomes completely reliant on renewables. The idea behind a tipping point in an energy transition is that these different political, economic, and public pressures mutually reinforce one another, creating rapid and deep change as we go over the tipping point and roll towards renewables. For example, if public opinion demands more of a policy on climate, it is easier for green politicians to pass ambitious goals and implement a credible long-term policy. If a long-term climate policy is implemented, it becomes easier for companies to invest in renewable innovation. If companies invest in renewable innovation, it becomes easier for green politicians to demand more renewables. And so on and so forth.

For the challenge of climate change, however, this only works if we reduce consumption of fossil energy at the same time. Because even though these positive reinforcements are happening around offshore wind, we keep producing and consuming more fossil energy, and thus challenging the ‘tipping point’ perspective. Put another way, we are growing our energy budget with renewables rather than transitioning to a fully renewable system.  In order to reach the desired and perceived transformative tipping point, offshore wind must not complement fossil energy, it must displace it.

Some may think that crossing the tipping point is like crossing the finish line of a race. But unlike the metaphor of a running race, the policy narrative of renewable energy transformation should not be constrained by tunnel vision and pure speed. Offshore energy projects have strong consequences for other marine sectors. Forgetting these ripple effects can lead to negative feedbacks on new offshore wind projects, resulting in a so-called “tripping point”.  A tipping point can reverse and become a tripping point if one or more political, economic, or public opinion forces fight against Norwegian offshore wind energy.

Why might this happen? The fact is many hundreds or thousands of square kilometers of Ocean space all around the world are needed for offshore wind energy to be successful at a large enough scale to contribute to a global energy transformation. This space is not immediately useable or navigable for use in other sectors, such as fishing, shipping, tourism, or transportation. Offshore aquaculture is often named as a synergistic sector with offshore energy, but even that is disputable as some farmers still wonder how the underwater noise and electromagnetic fields associated with large wind turbines would affect their fish.

Another potential tripping point is the continued lack of knowledge of how offshore wind parks will impact marine mammals, fish, habitats, and biodiversity. Ecological impact assessments are currently missing and require both focus and resources to create. Besides an ecological backlash which could occur due to lack of ecological assessments, a social backlash could also erupt against a sector that favor energy over responsible ecological stewardship. The concept of a social license to operate is relevant here - social trust is something that is essential for a sustainable sector and business to have. And trust is hard-earned.

Marine spatial planning is the default process for marine sectors to meet to discuss the pros and cons of new projects. These processes must have competent representation from all relevant actors in a respectful dialogue to prevent and mitigate all the inevitable tripping points along the path of energy and social transformation needed to meet our climate goals.

The institutional location of Bergen Offshore Wind Centre at the University of Bergen offers a myriad of new collaborations to help analyze both the potential tipping and tripping points of an offshore renewable energy transition. Indeed, we feel that these types of industry-academic-societal collaborations are what is needed to fulfill the UiB motto of “Knowledge that forms society.”