Europe is the world leader in renewable energy generation, but as with all renewable energy sources they face the problem of reliability. One way of overcoming this limitation and ensuring that power supply will be constant is to have expensive, traditional, fossil-fuelled power stations to generate electricity whilst conditions are unfavourable for the renewable source; but this almost makes the whole investment in renewable power sources irrelevant. A better way of ensuring consistent power is to link several diverse sources of renewable energy on one electrical grid. So when a wind farm can’t produce much power on a windless day, a solar farm might compensate.
Following this school of thought are the advocates of a European supergrid which they hope will enhance the clean energy industry by connecting power sources like wind farms in Scotland and solar arrays in Spain or North Africa to the power hungry population centres of Europe. According to Doug Parr, chief scientist at the British arm of Greenpeace, a supergrid “is absolutely essential” if Europe is to make general use of the potentially abundant clean energy, and significantly cut its CO2 emissions.
Some countries do already have cross-border power networks, but the benefits are few. Experts say a larger cross-border network will reduce power prices for consumers and make supplies more secure by promoting competition and distributing surplus production more efficiently. Eg. When the wind drops in Britain, it may still be strong in Germany, or the sun may be shining in Tunisia. Households drawing power from a grid thousands of miles wide are less likely to be affected by an individual source’s output.
Currently Britain is working with other Northern European countries such as, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden to negotiate a network of underwater cables, the North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative, with the aim of distributing power generated by offshore wind farms. The project is likely to take decades but could provide a potential building block for the broader European supergrid.
However, as with all mammoth, international projects, the dream faces some serious obstacles in the real world. International government initiatives such as this require drawn out negotiations between politicians that can last for decades. Politicians are generally in power for just a few years, so their focus tends to be short term. Larger, long term objectives are more difficult to organise because many different politicians, from different political parties, speaking different languages, with different interests and personal objectives will be involved over the years. Coordinating such an endeavour would be daunting.
The next big obstacle has been highlighted by James Cox of Poyry, a Finnish engineering and management consulting firm, who estimated that a wide-reaching grid could cost €100 billion, (about $127 billion). Few countries will be able to promise such a large amount of capital to a project that will take years to complete, especially in the current economic climate. Although it is possible that the current financial health of the EU governments will make it easier to raise private financing. “There are pension funds and many investors looking for safe returns,” said Julian Scola, spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels, “Electricity infrastructure, which is a regulated business with regulated returns, ought to and does provide very safe and very attractive investment.” So maybe finance will not be too big a hurdle to overcome.
Due to the almost impossible task of regulating and organising the design and construction of a European supergrid it is more likely that pairs of countries will implement their own grid link-ups, and that eventually those grids may add more and more countries, or join to other grids, and that one day there will be a network of smaller grids that link together across the continent. But let’s for one moment allow ourselves to believe that European politicians can coerce their respective governments into backing a supergrid. It really could set an example to the rest of the world and help secure the EU’s position as a renewable energy superpower in the future. I’m excited.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com