Directing current across Europe
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Julian Jackson asks if the European supergrid is the key to decarbonising electricity generation across the bloc?
The supergrid is an ambitious programme to link national electricity grids across Europe in support of the EU’s target to reduce carbon emissions by 20% on 1990 levels by 2020, rising to an 80–95% cut by 2050. The idea is that the variability of renewable energy would be compensated for by having a pan-European grid; so Norwegian hydropower could cook pasta in Naples and Spanish sunshine might boil tea in Edinburgh.
The supergrid would enable the exchange of electricity across borders, and allow a much higher level of integration of renewable technologies into the grid, provide energy security, emissions reduction, skilled jobs and the potential for exporting technology.
Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, who chairs the Climate Parliament – a global network of politicians concerned with environmental issues, says: “The supergrid is the most cost-effective way to meet our power sector decarbonisation targets, which are unbreakable if we want to do our bit to safeguard the planet’s climate. Long-distance grid connections are the catalyst that will unleash the development of renewables and the switch to a green economy.”
Taking a lead
The wind resource around the British Isles is the best in Europe and the UK and Ireland are working at the forefront of this ambitious project. Alongside seven other countries, the UK and Ireland have signed up to the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative to work together to develop offshore wind generation and the accompanying grid infrastructure. Ireland and Scotland have agreements to share power and it is likely that Ireland will have surplus energy to export if it develops its wind power sector effectively.
The technology underlying the project is well understood and mature. High-voltage direct current cables (HVDC) have much lower energy losses over long distances than conventional alternating current (AC) cables. Siemens calculates that DC transmission loss is 30%–50% less than AC at a similar power and voltage.
National grids could be joined together using overland or undersea HVDC cables called interconnectors via “supernodes”. This would mean that the grid connections would be transnational and power could be shunted most efficiently to whichever country needed it. Building new national grids, on the other hand, would mean duplication, wasted resources and, potentially, more carbon emissions. For example, using a DC interconnector to take power from mainland Spain to Mallorca, instead of a building new oil-fired power plant on the island, has saved 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 each year.
The EU is already experiencing the so-called “energy island” problem, where more renewable energy is generated than can be transmitted over national grids and new connections are needed to allow this power to be used. The UK government has been in talks with Iceland about building the world’s longest interconnector between the two countries to enable Icelandic geothermal power to be imported to the UK.
However, an interconnect with Norway is more likely and would enable the UK to take advantage of an international-scale “pumped storage” power system. Excess electricity generated in the UK would be used to pump water into reservoirs in Norway, where it would remain ready to run turbines and return the power when it was needed. The final technical hurdle to the scheme was surmounted last year, when technology firms Siemens and ABB both announced they had developed prototype DC breakers – which shut off power to enable maintenance or replacement. AC cables can be easily shut down for such work, but it is more of a challenge with a DC cable, especially if it is deep under water.
Behind the supergrid concept is Eddie O’Connor, the chief executive and founder of Ireland’s leading green energy company, Mainstream Renewable Power. O’Connor is bullish about the prospects of Europe becoming energy independent and making the transition to renewable power. “All Europe’s electricity will be decarbonised by 2050,” he predicts. “There are 12,000 gigatonnes of carbon in the Earth’s surface and we can only use 230 gigatonnes without destroying the planet’s atmosphere. The supergrid is absolutely central to Europe’s decarbonisation agenda.”
While the environmental credentials of the supergrid project may be clear, the costs are going to be significant. In a report last year, the parliamentary committee on climate change estimated the UK’s share of construction costs in the North Sea at £15–£20 billion over the next 10 years.
In evidence to the committee, O’Connor confirmed the project might cost €200 billion. However, these costs should be set against the damage caused by further carbon emissions and continuously rising fossil fuel prices, which will hit businesses and consumers hard.
The EU has just guaranteed €2.5 billion to provide seed funding for the supergrid through its “connecting Europe facility”, a programme due to launch in 2014 to improve transport, energy and telecommunication links.
Watson hails the EU’s allocation of funds as “a victory” for the world’s climate, as well as for the project itself. “€2.5 billion of our well-earned taxpayer money will now be guaranteed for electricity links instead of being made available to subsidise gas pipelines and accelerate climate change,” he says.
Europe is the leader in this technology. The supergrid, and its associated facilities and administration, will provide jobs in construction, development, maintenance and operation. In addition, the EU’s expertise and locally-developed products can be exported to other regions looking at building their own supergrids, such as North America and the Far East.
The largest obstacle to the successful development and deployment of the supergrid is the tangle of legislative, policy and cultural differences across the patchwork of EU and neighbouring nations. Business associations, industries, local, national and EU government bodies all have their say. Scientists and technologists at the Supergrid 2013 conference held in Brussels in March bemoaned the glacial pace of progress in sorting out agreements to implement the technically straightforward task of connecting national grids.
Theoretically there should be a harmonised EU single market in electricity in 2014. Whether this will happen in reality remains uncertain, however.
Marlene Holzner, EU energy spokesperson, confirms that the permitting arrangements for electricity infrastructure developments can take up to 10 years to agree. This should be reduced to three and a half years during the 2014-2020 EU programming period, says Holzner, but the slow pace of electricity market reform remains the basis for much of the sector’s frustration.
It is easy, however, to understand the concerns of politicians and public servants. Electricity, perhaps even more than oil, is the life-blood of industrial states and to rely on power being delivered by a different, possibly non-EU country thousands of miles away is a relatively new concept. If the lights went out in Birmingham, would people accept that it was due to the failure of a supernode in Portugal?
The level of decarbonisation required under EU commitments is unlikely to be achieved without a substantial transition to renewable energy and, therefore, requires the creation of a supergrid. Proceeding piecemeal will only increase costs and divert development funds across a range of options.
The proponents of the EU supergrid want a single, overarching framework to ensure that investment, both public and private, can be used appropriately. It would be an absurd situation, for example, for wind turbines in the Irish Sea to be shut down because their power cannot be exported to another part of Europe, while elsewhere polluting coal-fired power stations are built to prevent energy shortages.
With the greater uptake of electric vehicles, a green power supply could decarbonise the area’s transport too, according to Watson. “The supergrid is absolutely key to Europe achieving an 80%–95% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050,” he argues. “The cross-border HVDC grid connections that are already in the pipeline will help us to reach our 2020 targets too.
“Historically we were able to build our power stations near to electricity demand, but from now on our power stations will be windy coastlines and sunny deserts, and we need transmission lines to get that power to market.”
The supergrid is possibly the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken and will play a key role in decarbonising a major part of the energy system. However, the obstacles to ensuring it is completed in time to help the EU meet its carbon targets are not technical, but the friction generated by the complexity of the arrangements on paper.
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