A cartogram makes it easy to compare regional and national GDPs at a glance.
- On these maps, each hexagon represents one-thousandth of the world's economy.
- That makes it easy to compare the GDP of regions and nations across the globe.
- There are versions for nominal GDP and GDP adjusted for purchasing power.
Shanghai's skyline at night. According to the GDP (PPP) map, China is the world's largest economy. But that oft-cited statistic says more about the problems of PPP as a yardstick than about the economic prominence of China per se.Credit: Adi Constantin, CC0 1.0
If you want to rank the regions and countries of the world, area and population are but crude predictors of their importance. A better yardstick is GDP, or gross domestic product, defined as the economic value produced in a given region or country over a year.
Who's hot and who's not
And these two maps are possibly the best instruments to show who's hot and who's not, economically speaking. They are in fact cartograms, meaning they abandon geographic accuracy in order to represent the values of another dataset, in this case GDP: the larger a region or country is shown relative to its actual size, the greater its GDP, and vice versa.
So far, so familiar. What's unique about these maps is how this is done. Both are composed of hexagons, exactly 1,000 each. And each of those hexagons represents 0.1 percent of global GDP. That makes it fascinatingly easy to assess and compare the economic weight of various regions and countries throughout the world.
Did we say easy? Scratch that. GDP comes in two main flavors: nominal and PPP-adjusted, with each map showing one.
Nominal GDP does not take into account differences in standard of living. It simply converts local GDP values into U.S. dollars based on foreign exchange rates. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) takes into account living standards. $100 buys more stuff in poor countries than it does in rich countries. If you get more bang for your buck in country A, its PPP-adjusted GDP will be relatively higher than in country B.
Nominal GDP is a good way of comparing the crude economic size of various countries and regions, while GDP (PPP) is an attempt to measure the relative living standards between countries and regions. But this is also just an approximation, since it does not measure the distribution of personal income. For that, we have the Gini index, which measures the relative (in)equality of income distribution.
In other words, PPP factors in the high cost of living in mature markets as an economic disadvantage, while giving slightly more room to low-cost economies elsewhere. Think of it as the Peters projection of GDP models.
Who's number one: the U.S. or China?
The economy of the world, divided into a thousand hexagons.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
The difference is important, though, since the versions produce significantly different outcomes. The most salient one: on the nominal GDP map, the United States remains the world's largest economy. But on the PPP-adjusted GDP map, China takes the top spot. However, it is wrong to assume on this basis that China is the world's biggest economy.
As this article explains in some detail, PPP-adjusted GDP is not a good yardstick for comparing the size of economies – nominal GPD is the obvious measure for that. GDP (PPP) is an attempt to compare living standards; but even in that respect, it has its limitations. For example, $100 might buy you more in country B, but you might not be able to buy the stuff you can get in country A.
Both maps, shown below, are based on data from the IMF published in the first quarter of 2021. For the sake of brevity, we will have a closer look at the nominal GDP map and leave comparisons with the PPP map to you.
For the nominal map, global GDP is just over U.S. $93.86 trillion. That means each of the hexagons represents about U.S. $93.86 billion.
The worldwide overview clearly shows which three regions are the world's economic powerhouses. Despite the rise of East Asia (265 hexagons), North America (282) is still number one, with Europe (250) placing a close third. Added up, that's just three hexagons shy of 80 percent of the world's GDP. The remaining one-fifth of the world's economy is spread — rather thinly, by necessity — across Southeast Asia & Oceania (56), South Asia (41), the Middle East (38), South America (32), Africa (27), and North & Central Asia (9).
California über alles
California's economy is bigger than that of all of South America or Africa.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Thanks to the hexagons, the maps get more interesting the closer you zoom in on them.
In North America, the United States (242) overshadows Canada (20) and Mexico (13); and within the U.S., California (37) outperforms not just all other states, but also most other countries — and a few continents — worldwide. To be fair, Texas (21), New York (20), Florida (13), and Illinois (10) also do better than many individual nations.
Interestingly, states that look the same on a "regular" map are way out of each others' leagues on this one. Missouri is four hexagons but Nebraska only one. Alabama has three but Mississippi only one.
The granularity of the map goes beyond the state level, showing (in red) the economic heft of certain Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), within or across state lines. The New York City-Newark-Jersey City one is 20 hexagons, that is, 2 percent of the world's GDP. The Greater Toronto Area is five hexagons, a quarter of all of Canada. And Greater Mexico City is three hexagons. That's the same as the entire state of Oregon.
By comparison, South America (32) and Africa (27) are small fry on the GDP world map. But each little pond has its own big fish. In the former, it's Brazil (16), in particular, the state of São Paulo (5), which on its own is bigger than any other country in South America. In Africa, there is one regional leader each in the north, center, and south: Egypt (4), Nigeria (5), and South Africa (3), respectively.
Economically, Italy is bigger than Russia
Europe's "Big Five" represent three-fifths of the continent's GDP. The Asian part of the former Soviet Union is an economic afterthought.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Europe is bewilderingly diverse, so it helps to focus on the "Big Five" economies: Germany (46), UK (33), France (31), Italy (22), and Spain (16). They comprise three-fifths of Europe's GDP.
Each of these five has one or more regional economic engines. In Germany, it's the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in France, it's Île de France (both 10). In the UK, it's obviously London (8), in Italy Lombardy (5), and in Spain, it's a photo-finish between Madrid and Catalonia (both 3).
Interesting about Europe's economies are the small countries that punch well above their geographic and/or demographic weight, such as the Netherlands (11) and Switzerland (9).
Slide across to Eastern Europe and things get pretty mono-hexagonal. Poland (7) stands out positively and Russia (18) negatively. The former superpower, spread out over two continents, has an economy smaller than Italy's. Three individual German states have a GDP larger than that of the Moscow Metropolitan Area (5), the seat and bulk of Russia's economic power.
China, the biggest fish in a big pond
Australia and South Korea's GDPs are about equal, and each is about a third of Japan's. But even put together, these three add up to barely half of China's economic weight.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
In the 1980s, the United States was wary of Japan's rise to global prominence. But as this map shows, that fear was misguided — or rather, slightly misdirected. It's China (177) that now dominates the region economically, putting even the land of the Rising Sun (57) in the shade. South Korea (19) and Taiwan (8) look a lot larger than on a "regular" map, but it's clear who rules the roost here.
Interestingly, China's hubs are mainly but not exclusively coastal. Yes, there's Guangdong (19), Jiangsu (18), and Shandong (13), plus a few other provinces with access to the sea. But the inland provinces of Henan (10), Sichuan (9), and Hubei (8) are economically as important as any mid-sized European country. Tibet (1) and Xinjiang (2), huge on the "regular" map, are almost invisible here.
In the ASEAN countries (36), Thailand (6), Singapore (4), and the Indonesian island of Java (7) stand out. Economically, Oceania is virtually synonymous with Australia (17) — sorry, New Zealand (3).
As for South Asia and the Middle East, India (32) is clearly the dominant player, outperforming near neighbors Bangladesh (4) and Pakistan (3), as well as more distant ones like Saudi Arabia (9), Turkey (8), and Iran (7). But that's cold comfort for a country that sees itself as a challenger to China's dominance.
The PPP-adjusted GDP world map looks slightly different from the nominal GDP one. China is the #1 country and East Asia the #1 region.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps #1089
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American universities used to be small centers of rote learning, but three big ideas turned them into intellectual powerhouses.
- American universities used to be small denominational schools with little research output.
- Competition between schools in the late 19th century drove many schools to innovate.
- Today, America has many top universities and the lion's share of Nobel Prize winners.
List after list confirms it. The United States, by far, has the best and most prestigious universities in the world.
But it wasn't always this way, and there was no guarantee that this outcome would happen. According to a new essay by W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a series of innovations at American universities combined with lots of funding accidentally created a system that valued research, promoted talent sorting, and provided lots of cash to fund bigger and better schools.
The three big ideas: Sorting, performance review, tenure
According to the authors, you would have hardly recognized any of the original colleges in the United States. Schools might have a hundred students and perhaps five poorly paid professors who taught several disparate classes at once. The curriculum was limited and excluded things like business or engineering. Most students, who could be as young as 14, learned by rote. Schools were set up by denomination, with most students selecting to go somewhere close to home that matched their particular stance on Christianity. Research efforts were minimal.
It wasn't until after the Civil War that things began to change. Professors were hired for their expertise, schools began to specialize, and students started to pay less attention to the denomination of the school they wanted to attend. The number of colleges exploded, and things that worked in one were often taken up elsewhere.
The authors propose that this turnaround was made possible by the accidental convergence of a few things that America enjoyed and Europe lacked. Low entry requirements meant new schools with new ideas popped up all the time, the large number of schools allowed for more experimentation in how schools operated, and the variety of choices students and staff had led to self-sorting towards institutions that excelled in particular fields.
Some of the more famous cases of experimentation, Johns Hopkins and Cornell, sought to emulate the specialization of European schools, while others, such as the University of Chicago, prioritized hiring the most qualified staff — even when they were already working at other universities.
Over time, schools placed less emphasis on religious affiliation and began to focus on specialization. Admissions standards began to rise at some schools, sorting high-achieving (or high status) students into programs with highly qualified staff.
The effort to find and maintain high-quality staff led to the creation of performance review standards in different fields. These systems, which often had accomplished professors reviewing their peers, encouraged more high-quality research output. Those who performed well often gained secure contracts to teach and conduct research — that is, tenure — which further encouraged high achievement.
All of this was made possible by large amounts of state and private funding, the latter often from proud alumni.
"What became challenging for all these universities once they started emphasizing research is how to incentivize that activity. One thing that agency theory shows is that one way to achieve this is to create somewhat lumpy rewards. That is to say, rewards that don't necessarily give you a little bit more for a little bit more output but rather create a big prize. Tenure has that flavor. It basically says if your research output is high enough you're going to get a lifetime contract at this university. Tenure has a couple of benefits that come out of agency theory. One is that these types of lumpy rewards can be particularly good when you make people compete against each other. The emergence of it in the US, in fact, helped place the US on good footing to compete at research with Europe, which does not have that institution as much."
Taken together, these factors created a virtuous cycle. The authors describe it as producing "resources to invest in research, which they could effectively incentivize; this helped attract strong students and funding, which could go into further reforms and enhancements."
By the 1920s, the US had overtaken Germany — the European country with the strongest universities in the early 20th century — in the share of Nobel Prize winners and never looked back.
The side effect: Inequality
All of this does produce one side effect well known to Americans: inequality. While the greatest American schools do well across the board, many other schools are comparatively middling. The authors point to one ranking list which illustrates this. According to the Shanghai Ranking, 41 of the top 100 universities globally are American, but while 83 percent of public universities in Spain make the top 1000, only about 23 percent of American ones do.
This is partly the result of the American system being as sorted as it is, so the best researchers and students tend to go to the same places. The European model, on the other hand, ensures equality of resources between different schools within a country.
Today, universities on both sides of the Atlantic share ideas, but retain their own character. For instance, tenure, which so benefited American schools, exists in an altered form in Europe.
Why isn't American K-12 education as good?
While this system has produced great universities, it's difficult to apply these tools elsewhere. For example, performance evaluation has been refined for researchers at the university level, but there is still tremendous debate over what counts as high performance at the K-12 level.
Additionally, it's possible for a country to dominate in university rankings with a handful of great schools. At the K-12 level, it would require thousands of schools performing at the peak of their abilities to get a similar result.
Until that happens, Americans can take pride that their universities — through a combination of competition, experimentation, and lots and lots of money — rose from small centers of rote learning to become the greatest research institutions in the history of the world.
Map shows Europe's imminent Great Leap Forward in battery cell production
- China produces 80 percent of electric vehicle batteries.
- To achieve battery independence, Europe is ramping up production.
- And the U.S.? Action is needed, and quick.
This is a map of the future — the future of battery cell production in Europe. If and when all projects on this map are up and running, Europe will have a battery cell production capacity of around 700 gigawatt hours (GWh). That's crucial for two reasons: (1) those battery cells will power the electric vehicles (EVs) that will soon replace our fossil-fuel cars; and (2) a production capacity of that magnitude would break China's current near-monopoly.
Say what you will about state-run economies, but they're great at concentrating effort on a particular target. About a decade ago, Beijing directed huge resources towards its photovoltaic industry. Today, nine of the world's 10 largest solar panel manufacturers are at least partly Chinese. China is similarly resolved to become the global leader in EVs, including EV battery production.
And so far, it's working. At present, about 80% of the world's lithium-ion battery cells are made in China. Lithium-ion batteries are the ones used in EVs. In sufficient numbers, lithium-ion batteries can also be used for large-scale energy storage, which would help even out power supply fluctuations from sources like solar and wind.
China's dominance in this area is making many outside China nervous. In previous decades, OPEC had a similar stranglehold on producing the oil that makes cars run and factories hum. Then the organization had a political point to make and turned off the tap. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, oil prices skyrocketed and economies crashed.
Avoiding a 21st-century version of that scenario requires a strategy for EV battery self-sufficiency, and Europe has one. In 2018, the EU launched its Battery Action Plan, a concerted effort to increase its battery production capacity. Realizing they couldn't beat China on price, the Europeans resolved that their batteries would be greener and more efficient.
Easier said than done. Setting up battery production is complex, expensive, and slow. And as the EU's woefully slow vaccine rollout demonstrates, the organization's strength-in-numbers argument doesn't always work in its favor. Indeed, by 2020, only four of the dots on this map were up and running:
- a facility by Envision AESC in Sunderland (UK - now ex EU)
- a Samsung factory in Göd (Hungary)
- an LG Energy Solution plant in Wroclaw (Poland)
- a factory by Leclanché in Willstätt (Germany)
But in this case, slow and steady may win the race. At least two dozen battery plants are in the works across Europe (i.e. EU and its near abroad), and four of those should come online in 2021 alone, including Tesla's plant near Berlin. Tesla, incidentally, coined the term "gigafactory" for its facility in Sparks, Nevada. As the title of this map suggests, it's becoming the generic description for any large battery cell production facility.
By the end of the decade, Europe will have around 30 gigafactories.Credit: CIC energiGUNE
Despite the fact that Tesla's Nevada plant is on its way to becoming the world's largest building, battery production capacity is growing fastest in Europe. Predictions vary, but all observers agree that Europe is on the verge of a Great Leap Forward. Here's why:
- Europe's current production capacity is about 30 GWh.
- One forecast puts that figure at 300 GWh by 2029, another even at 400 GWh by 2025.
- Adding up the maximum capacity of all facilities on this map comes close to 700 GWh by 2028.
- In terms of global capacity, BloombergNEF predicts Europe's share could increase from 7% now to 31% in 2030.
- According to Eurobat — disappointingly, not the Gauloises-smoking, Nietzsche-quoting counterpart to Batman — the value of the battery industry will increase from €15 ($18) billion in Europe and €75 ($90) billion worldwide in 2019 to €35 ($42) billion in Europe and €130 ($156) billion worldwide by 2030.
So, who will be Europe's answer to CATL (short for Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.), China's main battery manufacturer? There are several pretenders to the crown. Here are some:
- Britishvolt, set to go online with Britain's first and largest gigafactory in Northumberland (UK) in 2023, with a maximum capacity of 35 GWh per annum.
- Northvolt, led by former Tesla execs, supported by the Swedish government and the European Investment Bank. Also funded by Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs. Aims to be green and big. One plant coming online in Sweden this year, another in Germany in 2024. Combined maximum capacity is 64 GWh.
- Tesla. Not content with its one gigafactory (40 GWh) opening this year, the company has already announced that it will build a second plant in Europe.
That second plant is not yet on the map. Also missing are the half dozen gigafactories that Volkswagen aims to open in the coming years. If Europe is to become self-sufficient in EV batteries, even more will be needed.
Europe's path to battery supremacy
In 2020, 1.3 million EVs were sold in Europe, edging past China to become the world's largest EV market. In 2021, Europe looks set to maintain that lead. By 2025 at the latest, EVs will have achieved price parity with fossil-fuel vehicles, not just in terms of total cost of operation but also in upfront cost.
Add to that the increasingly hostile environment — namely, higher taxes and stricter regulations — to fossil-fuel cars in Europe, and the pace of electrification will increase dramatically by mid-decade. Going by EU requirements for CO2 emissions alone, the EV share of the total vehicle market would need to be between 60% and 70% pretty soon.
While that may seem an impossibly high target today, things could start looking different very soon. Volkswagen aims to have full-electric cars make up more than 70 percent of its European sales by 2030. Volvo and Ford even aim to present entirely electric lineups by 2030 at the latest. And that year is also when the UK government intends to ban the sale of new fossil-fuel cars.
All of which could translate into base demand for EV batteries in Europe as high as 1,200 GWh by 2040. Even with all planned factories on the map running at maximum capacity, that still leaves a production capacity gap of about 40%.
To avoid batteries becoming a bottleneck for electrification, the EU likely will pour even more money into the industry via the European Green Deal and Europe's post-COVID recovery plan. Battery production is not just strategically sound; it also boosts employment.
A study by Fraunhofer ISI says for each GWh added in battery production capacity, count on 40 jobs added directly and 200 in upstream industries. The study forecasts battery manufacturing could generate up to 155,000 jobs across Europe by 2033 (although it doesn't mention how many would be lost due to reduced production of fossil-fuel cars).
Coming to America
And how fares America? Electrification is coming to the U.S. as well. By one estimate, EVs will have a market penetration of about 15% by 2025. Deloitte predicts EVs will take up 27% of new car sales in the US by 2030. The Biden administration is keen to make up for past inaction in terms of switching to post-fossil energy. But it has its work cut out.
Apart from Tesla's Gigafactory, the U.S. has only two other battery production facilities. If current trends continue, there would be just ten by 2030. At that time, China will have 140 battery factories and Europe, according to this map, close to 30. If U.S. production can't keep up with demand, electrification will suffer from the dreaded battery bottleneck. Unless America is content to import its batteries from Europe or China.
Strange Maps #1080
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A new study provides a possible scientific explanation for the existence of stories about ancient saints performing miracles with water.
Ancient and near ancient records are often less than trustworthy. Even if you ignore the parts with reports of sea monsters or ants that mine gold, certain events often seem exaggerated. If we trust what the Greeks wrote, we'd have to assume Persia invaded with an impossibly high percentage of their entire population. The Romans, fond of showing how horrible the people they subdued were, spoke of the Celts using the Wicker Man for human sacrifice, though we can find no hard evidence of Wicker Men having existed.
You can probably understand why most historians take certain claims with a grain of salt, especially when those claims talk about dramatic events.
One seemingly mundane area this includes is the weather. What one person might record as an unprecedented weather event another person might think of as normal. Determining which account is correct a thousand years after the fact can be difficult, assuming that neither of them was exaggerating in the first place.
Luckily, as science marches on, it can provide new ways to investigate the past. An international team of researchers has managed to use isotopes from stalagmites in Northern Italy to better understand what the weather was like in the sixth century and to provide evidence for some fantastic historical records.
Ancient truths hidden in a cave
In a recent study published in Climatic Change, researchers investigated stalagmites in a cave in Tuscany. Stalagmites, which are the pointy rock formations on the ground in caves, provide a record of the environmental conditions they formed in. By examining different parts of the stalagmites, the team could determine what the climate was like, for instance if it was wetter or drier than normal, at different points in history. Uranium-thorium dating was used to provide precise dates for these points.
Oxygen isotope ratios were then measured to distinguish between wetter and drier periods. Combining this with the uranium-thorium data, the researchers could compile a timeline of climate activity over several hundred years. The oxygen isotope ratios in the sixth century indicated unusually wet weather.
The authors speculate that the moisture could have come from the North Atlantic Oscillation's negative phase, which tends to push moist air into Italy.
The water miracles of the Italian saints
Stalagmite Sample RL12, which was the focus of this study. Points on the sample that were used for dating and isotope collection are labeled. Zanchetta et al
While these findings provide strong evidence for lots of rain in Sixth Century Italy, this isn't the first report to suggest that the weather might have been extreme at the time.
Records of the saints from that time feature numerous examples of holy men somehow controlling troublesome water. One, the tale of St. Frigidian, features the saint successfully commanding the Serchio river to flow into a raked track he created, saving Lucca from flooding. A fifth of the miracles described in the Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers, a record of saints, are "water miracles" of this kind.
While it is true that some of the most noteworthy miracles in the Bible involve water , such as the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, the miracles described in Dialogues are often unique feats with no obvious literary precursor, suggesting that they aren't repeats of existing stories in a new setting.
Additionally, French religious documents from the same period have no similar emphasis on water miracles. This suggests, though does not prove, that the Italians had separate motivations for listing so many of them.
Does this mean we can start trusting any old document?
Co-author Robert Wiśiewski of the University of Warsaw explained how documents like the Dialogues can be used to help improve our understanding of history:
"Literary sources, in particular stories about saints, should not be taken as a direct record of past events, They do, however, reflect the worldview of church writers and the basis for their interpretation of extraordinary weather phenomena."
An artificial island in the North Sea is the biggest building project ever in Danish history - and could pave the way for many more.
- In 1991, Denmark constructed the world's first offshore wind farm.
- Now they're building an entire 'Energy Island' in the North Sea.
- As the U.S. catches up, Danish know-how could soon come to America.
Giant wind farms
Wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm, so far the only offshore wind project in operation in the U.S.
Credit: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images
On Monday, President Biden designated a 'Wind Energy Area' in the waters between Long Island and New Jersey. It's part of an ambitious plan to build giant wind farms along the East Coast. There's currently only one offshore wind farm in the Eastern U.S., off Rhode Island (1).
When those wind farms get built, you can bet there'll be Danish companies involved. In 1991, Denmark built Vindeby, the world's first offshore wind farm. In the years since, Danish companies have maintained their global lead.
In February, the Danish government announced it would build the world's first 'Energy Island'. Everybody else in the world, take note: if the Danes pull this off, similar islands could soon pop up off your shores – perhaps also in the New York Bight.
So, what's an Energy Island, and why does Denmark want one? For the answer, we spool back to June 2020, when a broad coalition of Danish parties, left and right, in government and opposition, concluded a Climate Agreement. This is Denmark's plan not only to make a radical break with fossil fuels but also to show the rest of the world how it's done.
On the rise again
Close-up of Energy Island, with two of the seawalls at the back and the port at the front.
Credit: Danish Energy Agency
Due in large part to its pioneering work with wind energy, Denmark has a green image. But that hasn't always reflected reality. Yes, in 2019 the country generated 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources – earning it 9th place worldwide (2). But in 2018, Denmark also was the EU's leading oil producer (3).
Under the Climate Agreement, that will stop. Denmark will no longer explore and develop new oil and gas fields in its section of the North Sea. Extraction will be gradually reduced to zero. In exchange, Denmark will dramatically scale up the production of sustainable energy via offshore wind farms. The ultimate goal: nationwide carbon neutrality by 2050.
Offshore wind farms produce the bulk of Europe's sustainable energy. And after a dip in the first decade of the century, offshore wind farms are on the rise again (4). One reason for the increased popularity: taller turbines, which means larger blades, which means greater capacity.
- In 2016, the tallest turbines were 540 ft (164 m) and had a capacity of 8 megawatts (MW).
- In 2021, turbines can be up to 720 ft (220 m) tall, generating up to 12 MW.
- Soon, the turbines will reach 820 ft (250 m) – not that much shorter than the Eiffel Tower (1,030 ft or 314 m, street to flagpole). These will have a capacity of up to 20 MW.
Potential position of Energy Island (red) off the western coast of Jutland, surrounded by a wind farm (green) filled with turbines (blue dots).
Credit: Danish Energy Agency
As the shallow parts of the North Sea (<66 ft; <20 m) fill up with wind farms, the issue of managing the energy flow produced by these farms becomes acute. The obvious solution would be to build a central point where the energy is collected, converted from AC to DC and transmitted to one or more points onshore. Centralised management of the wind farms would mitigate the fluctuations in energy production and make it easier for supply to meet demand.
If supply is greater than demand, these collection points can also serve as storage units. Excess energy could be stored in batteries or transformed into hydrogen via electrolysis. If and when necessary, the hydrogen can then be transported onto land and reconverted into electricity.
The Dutch are thinking about it, and some have suggested the Dogger Bank as an ideal location: shallow and central within the North Sea, ideally placed to distribute energy to the various countries bordering the sea. But the Danes are doing it. The Climate Agreement envisaged not one, but two energy islands.
One would be Bornholm, Denmark's Baltic island, halfway between Sweden and Poland, which would serve as the hub for local offshore wind farms. But the other would be an entirely new, entirely artificial island in the North Sea, to be built about 50 miles (80 km) off Thorsminde, on the western coast of Jutland.
10 million households
Schematic overview of how an Energy Island could serve as a hub for collecting and redistributing sustainable energy.
Credit: Danish Energy Agency
In February, the Danish government revealed how much this Energi-Ø would cost, how long it would take to build – and what it might look like.
- Energy Island will be built via the caisson method – essentially, sinking a watertight box to the bottom of the sea. The island will be protected from storms by high seawalls on three sides. The fourth side will feature a dock for ships.
- Construction could start in 2026 and is expected to take three years. Building the wind farms and transmission network will take a few years more. By 2033, it could be churning out its sustainable GWs.
- In its initial phase, the island will have an area of about 12 hectares (30 acres, or about 18 soccer fields). It will centralize the production of about 200 offshore wind turbines, with a joint capacity of 3 GW. That's about the equivalent of 3 million households – slightly more than the total for Denmark.
- When fully completed, the island will have an area of around 46 hectares (114 acres, just under 70 soccer fields), collect the energy of 600 turbines, for a total capacity of 10 GW (5). That covers 10 million households.
- 10 GW is equivalent to about 150 percent of Denmark's entire electricity needs (households, industry, infrastructure, etc.) That leaves plenty of scope for supplying neighbouring countries. Agreements have already been reached with Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The plan also foresees a plant for hydrogen production on the island, either to be piped onshore, or stored and transported in large batteries.
Yet untested aspects
Location of Energy Island (yellow) in the North Sea, showing potential connections towards neighboring countries.
Credit: Danish Climate Ministry / Vimeo
In all, the island would cost DKK 210 billion (US$33 billion) to build – by far Denmark's largest construction project (6).
The project will be undertaken in a public-private partnership between the Danish state and commercial interests. Because it is 'critical infrastructure', the state will retain a stake of at least 50.1 percent in the project. There are two scenarios for co-ownership:
- The island will be owned in its entirety by a company, in which the Danish state retains at least that smallest of majorities;
- Private companies will be able to own up to 49.9 percent of the island itself.
The Danish government needs private-sector input to overcome unknown and as yet untested aspects of the project, not just in terms of design and building an entire island from scratch, but also on how to operate and maintain it, and even when it comes to financing and risk management.
But where there's risk, there is potential. If the project is successful, it will become the blueprint for similar energy islands the world over – and the companies that helped build the first one, will be in high demand to build the other ones too, perhaps soon in Biden's 'Wind Energy Area'.
Green, as the Danes have discovered, is not just the color of nature. It's also the color of money.
Strange Maps #1077
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, a two-turbine pilot project 23 miles (43 km) off Virginia Beach, was completed last year.
(2) The Top 10 (2019) are Iceland (79%), Norway (66%), Brazil (45%), Sweden (42%), New Zealand (35%), Austria (38%), Switzerland (31%), Ecuador (30%), Denmark (30%) and Canada (28%).
(3) With 5.8 megatons of oil equivalent (Mtoe), Denmark beat Italy (4.7 Mtoe) and Romania (3.4 Mtoe). Oil production in the EU is on the way down. It peaked in 2004 (42.5 Mtoe) and has since halved (to 21.4 Mtoe in 2018). A similar trend has occurred in the two key non-EU oil producers in Europe. a. Norway's oil production peaked in 2001 (159.2 Mtoe) and has since more than halved (to 74.5 Mtoe in 2018). b. The UK's oil production peaked in 1999 (133.3 Mtoe) and has since been reduced by almost two thirds (to 49.3 Mtoe in 2018).
(5) The Bornholm energy hub is projected to top out at 2 GW.
(6) Inaugurated in 2000, the famous Øresund Bridge (Øresundsbroen), connecting Sweden to Denmark, cost about DKK 25 billion (US$4 billion) in today's money. When it's finished (by 2029, if work continues apace), the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link (18 km) between the Danish island of Lolland and the German island of Fehmarn, will be the world's longest road/rail tunnel. It will have cost about DKK 55 billion (US$ 8.7 billion).