The world’s future energy wars will be fought under the sea

Damond Isiaka
15 Min Read

London
CNN
 — 

When New Yorkers grab their morning coffee, it’s their electric grid that really needs the kick. Dozens of power plants shift into gear as demand for electricity soars at breakfast time and keeps rising until the city is done with dinner.

A huge chunk of that energy is still being generated by planet-heating natural gas, and although the wider state of New York is trying to rapidly green its grid to slow climate change, there’s not always enough wind or sun to rely on in real time. The technology to store renewable energy for long periods hasn’t quite been mastered, either.

A group of entrepreneurs is looking 3,000 miles away for a solution — not west to sunny California with its solar potential but east, to gray and rainy Britain.

The group wants to build what would be the world’s largest subsea energy interconnector between continents, linking Europe and North America with three pairs of high-voltage cables. The cables would stretch more than 2,000 miles across the entire floor of the Atlantic Ocean to connect places like the United Kingdom’s west with eastern Canada, and potentially New York with western France.

The interconnector would send renewable energy both east and west, taking advantage of the sun’s diurnal journey across the sky.

“When the sun is at its zenith, we probably have more power in Europe than we can really use,” said Simon Ludlam, founder and CEO of Etchea Energy, and one of the trio of Europeans leading the project. “We’ve got wind and we’ve also got too much solar. That’s a good time to send it to a demand center, like the East Coast of the United States.”

“Five, six hours later, it’s the zenith in the East Coast, and obviously, we in Europe have come back for dinner, and we get the reverse flow,” he added.

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The transatlantic interconnector is still a proposal, but networks of green energy cables are starting to sprawl across the world’s sea beds. They are fast becoming part of a global climate solution, transmitting large amounts of renewable energy to countries struggling to make the green transition alone. But they are also forging new relations that are reshaping the geopolitical map and shifting some of the world’s energy wars down to the depths of the ocean.

The need to decarbonize has never been so urgent. Over this decade, the world must wean itself off fossil fuels and roughly halve its carbon emissions if it is to limit climate change to levels where humans and ecosystems can comfortably adapt and survive, according to the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

Undersea cables could prove a crucial tool to speed the uptake of renewable energy. The world is lagging on its climate goals, with most countries not yet aligned with the Paris Agreement to cut planet-heating pollution, analysis from Climate Action Tracker shows.

Already, energy cables run between several countries in Europe, most of them allied neighbors. Not all of them carry renewable power exclusively — that’s sometimes determined by what makes up each country’s energy grid — but new ones are typically being built for a green energy future.

The UK, where land space for power plants is limited, is already connected with Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark under the sea. It has signed up to a solar and wind link with Morocco to take advantage of the North African country’s many hours of sunlight and strong trade winds that run across the equator.

Noor Energy's solar power plant outside the central Moroccan town of Ouarzazate on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Turbines at the Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm off the northwestern English coast near New Brighton.

Similar proposals are popping up around the globe. A project called Sun Cable seeks to send solar power from sunny Australia, where land is abundant, to the Southeast Asian nation of Singapore, which also has plenty of sun but very little room for solar farms.

India and Saudi Arabia plan to link their respective power grids via the Arabian Sea, part of a broader economic corridor plan to connect Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It has the Biden administration’s backing for its potential to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which consists mostly of energy and infrastructure projects that have helped Beijing strengthen its wealth and global influence.

The Europe-US cables could send 6 gigawatts of energy in both directions at the speed of light, said Laurent Segalen, founder of the London-based Megawatt-X renewable energy firm, who is also part of the trio proposing the transatlantic interconnector. That’s equivalent to what six large-scale nuclear power plants can generate, transmitted in near-real time.

Russian aggression at sea

The transatlantic interconnector is in its early stages and will need buy-in from several countries and states, as well as sizeable investment. At best, it could be built by the mid-2030s.

The trio behind the megaproject is optimistic it will find backers, not just to slow climate change but also to counter Russia in the global energy wars and to battle against China for dominance in clean energy technology, which have both found new frontiers under the sea.

The trio is not shying away from the geopolitical implications of their project. They are instead staring Russia down, choosing to name their interconnector The North Atlantic Transmission One-Link — or NATO-L.

The hope is that the project will have positive global security outcomes: Interconnectors will force nations to think carefully about who their allies should be in a fast-changing geopolitical world, and to think twice before getting into diplomatic rows, or worse, military conflict.

That’s already been happening in a sense, with fossil fuels. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany was abandoned in 2022 after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and was later sabotaged at sea. European nations also began sharing their energy with each other more actively at this time, partly through their existing undersea cable networks to rely less on Russian gas.

“When we had the Ukraine invasion, we had a hiatus in the electricity and gas markets, and the interconnectors responded logically,” Etchea Energy’s Ludlam said. “We came to the aid of our neighbors, and it created a dependency that was tested in anger, and it won. And once you’ve got one of these dependencies in place, you’re less likely to do something to aggravate that.”

Europe also turned to liquefied gas exports from the US to replace Russian energy, bringing the two long-time allies closer together after the fractious four years of the Trump presidency.

But subsea cables aren’t invulnerable, either. Russia has been using the ocean to step up its gray-zone attacks — acts of provocation and intimidation that fall short of actual armed conflict — targeting Europe and, to a lesser extent, the US.

A joint documentary from public broadcasters in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden last year reported Russia was carrying out alleged undersea intelligence operations around energy cables, as well as offshore wind farms and gas pipelines, in the North Sea and Baltic Sea.

They alleged Russian vessels, both military and civilian, were trying to map critical undersea infrastructure, and were likely to have the ability to cut off power in European states.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov at the time dismissed the report and said it was a sign that European countries “again prefer to baselessly blame Russia for everything.”

The effect of the increase in Russia’s gray-zone attacks appears to be mostly psychological intimidation, said George Dyson, a senior security risk analyst with the Control Risks consulting firm — a warning to Western Europe that Russia has the ability to do worse if it chooses.

Such attacks have become particularly common in the North Sea, Dyson said.

“There have been attacks on arms depots as well as vessels carrying arms supplies to Ukraine,” he said. “But it’s not very strategic. It seems a bit uncoordinated.”

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Part of a submarine internet cable between Aqaba in Jordan and Taba, Egypt, in the Red Sea. Internet connectors have also been damaged at sea.

The Atlantic is so deep that the NATO-L interconnector would likely be well protected — it could run down to 11,000 feet, lower than submarines can ever lurk. But undersea cables are most vulnerable when they rise to shallower waters to make their way back on land, as NATO-L would have to do across miles of continental shelf, where they can be sabotaged or damaged by anchors or fishing trawlers.

A cut to telecommunications cables in the Red Sea in March showed how disruptive such damage could be — an estimated 25% of data flow was severed between Asia and Europe. The cut was widely blamed on Houthi rebel attacks in the area, though the Houthis denied the accusations, and questions remain over whether it was intentional or an accident.

Despite the security concerns at sea, critical infrastructure on land hardly seems much safer. Ukraine’s power plants, including those that run on renewable hydroelectric and nuclear, have been targeted many times by Russian strikes.

But the appeal of attacks at sea is that it’s where Russia’s European rivals are rapidly strengthening their connections and ability to generate and share homegrown green energy.

Russia has for decades enjoyed an “oversized” role on the world stage because of its abundant coal, oil and gas resources, said Alberto Rizzi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who researches the geopolitics of energy and infrastructure. But that could change as its economic rivals, Europe and the United States — and even the Middle East’s traditional petrostates — invest in renewables.

“If you look at Gulf countries, they are investing heavily in renewable energy. They want to be a major provider of green energy as well. They want to maintain the role that they have now in terms of being energy powerhouses, even in the transition,” Rizzi said. “Then we have other countries, Russia, for example, which isn’t investing in renewables and so is being left out.”

There’s a simplicity to connecting European allies, many of which are part of the 27-member European Union. Linking North America and Europe will be more complicated, politically. It may send a signal to Russia of strong ties, but the Trump years also showed that the US-EU bond, particularly on the issue of NATO and defense, isn’t unbreakable.

The US presidential election in November could have consequences for energy projects like NATO-L, even though its purpose is to span generations and outlive changes of government.

“A subsea cable could be exploited by a transactional presidency like Trump’s in order to force concessions from Europe in other areas,” Rizzi said. “And once you build that tie, it’s very difficult to untie it.”

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