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The Deal: European Supergrid Sets High Expectations

Imagine if we lived in a world where constant sunshine, flowing rivers, steady wind, abundant forests, and hot rock beneath our feet were equally accessible resources able to instantly power our around-the-clock energy demands. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world, and sometimes the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow.

Understanding the limitations of individual renewable sources, European leaders years ago set in motion a plan to solve climate issues and create the most ideal renewable scenario possible.

Eventually, they hope the European supergrid project will connect local renewable resources to all corners of Europe with interconnecting transmission, cutting waste, boosting economies and helping everyone to share the wealth. 

The big plan 

The North Sea Grid Initiative consists of Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom. These countries signed a memorandum of understanding back in 2011 to help spur offshore wind development and tap into the ideal types of renewable energy in different parts of Europe within the next decade.

Although some interconnectors already exist, according to the New York Times most European countries still rely on their own electricity production. But a vast interconnection network can reduce power prices and secure the energy supply throughout Europe. This would distribute power efficiently and create competition that can further drive down prices. 

Ideally, undersea transmission lines will run along the coasts of these countries and connect to a robust onshore network. It would dispel fears of intermittency and help launch Europe toward its goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020.

More than 100 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind are in the development or planning phases throughout Europe, and The Guardian reports that if this power were to come onshore, we need to be prepared with a stronger grid system.  ‘The benefits of an offshore supergrid are not simply to allow offshore wind farms to connect; if you have additional capacity, which you will within these lines, it will allow power trading between countries and that improves EU competitiveness,’ said Justin Wilkes of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

And the benefits of offshore wind and interconnector development are not just in energy production — it is expected to boost the economy and create jobs. ‘The race for offshore wind manufacturing jobs is on, and Siemens and the Humber [Gateway Offshore Wind Farm] are first out of the traps. I'm determined the UK economy benefits from the opportunities and jobs of the offshore wind supply chain,’ said former UK energy secretary Chris Huhne in a statement.

To fully take advantage of the supergrid, countries have started to call on each other to ramp up renewables production. For example, representatives from the UK are urging Ireland to build wind farms on its west coast so they can build an interconnector and take advantage of its huge resources. 

‘The west coast of Ireland has some of the fiercest winds in Europe,’ said Charles Hendry, UK energy minister, to the Guardian. ‘They whip in off the Atlantic which makes it an ideal location for wind farms. However, the Irish market for electricity is less than a tenth of that of Britain. That means that companies cannot afford to build wind farms in Ireland because there is no market for their power. We want to put that right.’

The UK hopes to cut down on fossil fuel imports and secure its energy independence as several nuclear power plants are to be decommissioned in the next decade. The country is also aware of possible intermittency issues with its massive wind developments and hopes this project will secure sustainable, renewable power.

‘Interconnectors are an incredibly effective way to counter the argument that you need to back up each gigawatt of wind with a gigawatt of gas — they quite clearly show you do not,’ said Hendry.  

Interconnectors would also allow for excess wind power to pump water into storage lakes, and when electricity is needed, the water would be released and flow through turbines, further establishing “backup” energy storage, according to the Guardian.

‘Europe’s future lies in green energy and Britain wants to work with other countries to make the most of the clean energy potential in and around the North Sea,’ said Huhne.

Progress so far 

The UK already has two interconnectors via France and the Netherlands, and nine additional cables are in the works, according to the Guardian. If all goes well and the supergrid is completed, these interconnectors could help to satisfy one third of the UK energy demand and provide stable power to all countries involved.  

The England-France Interconnector is owned by the National Grid and Réseau de Transport d'Electricité (RTE). Established in 1986, the 2,000-MW link has exceeded 93% usage per year. The UK receives about 5 percent of its energy from this interconnector annually. In 2001, the rights to its capacity was reevaluated and opened to all market participants at auction. According to a 20th anniversary report by Neelie Kroes, former European Commissioner for Competition Policy, this change was beneficial to the EU.

‘This has had positive and far-reaching consequences for energy markets across the European Union. Allocation of scarce capacity on a non-discriminatory basis is now an accepted principle in both competition law and Community legislation. An open process for the allocation of capacity strengthens competition by giving all companies the possibility to trade electricity across borders,’ according to the report.

The UK-Netherlands interconnector, BritNed, went online in 2011 and was the first to do so in more than 25 years (since the UK-France connector). National Grid and TenneT own the 1,000-MW connector. Huhne praised the project, declaring it as “good news” for UK consumers because it allows the country to pull in cheap electricity during peak hours.

The Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation Maxime Vergagen agreed with Huhne:  ‘This cable link between the electricity markets of the UK and the Netherlands will enhance the security of supply and will contribute to effective pricing. What's more, the link will help us integrate sustainable energy initiatives in the electricity grid.’ 

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BritNed allowed for the first-ever energy auction in the UK. Energy orders placed on the day-ahead UK auction are matched on the Dutch auction. ‘The BritNed market coupling helps to create a robust and reliable price index and most importantly, it increases liquidity and volumes traded in the GB electricity wholesale market,’ said APX-ENDEX, the Anglo-Dutch energy exchange, in a release. 

Several additional interconnectors are already under construction. The longest is the 900-km UK-Norway interconnector, called Northconnect, developed by Vattenfall, Agder Energy, E-CO, Lyse and Scottish and Southern Energy; it is set to be complete in 2019. 

‘Northconnect will make an important contribution towards developing the European market for electricity, with increased competition in regional markets, a secure supply of electricity and more stable energy prices for consumers,’ said Harald von Heyden, head of Vattenfall Asset Optimisation and Trading, in a release. 

The UK has also been in talks with Iceland, which may soon spread its vast wealth of geothermal energy to the UK.  Hendry visited Reykjavik in May to discuss the possibility of establishing an undersea electricity cable to connect the two countries' electricity grids. If built, the cable would be the longest interconnector in the world. Hendry and Iceland Finance Minister Oddny Haroardottir signed a memorandum of understanding to explore options.

According to the agreement, both sides ‘cooperate to support the development of the deep geothermal sector in the U.K., including in the supply of heat to district heating networks.’ 

Issues to consider 

Despite the outpouring of political support for the project, many still have doubts. According to a report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the UK’s House of Commons, the costs of a European supergrid would likely be too high and coordinating regulations between countries would be too complicated. 

Building interconnectors is an expensive endeavor — the 260-kilometer Britain-Netherland interconnector was developed at a cost of £500 million (US $807.9 million). But even though they are costly to build, some analysts argue that interconnectors are the cheapest method to support wind intermittency without building a power plant. And interconnectors also allow for power to be sold and purchased when supply is high or low.   

‘Interconnectors are the cheapest way of backing up wind, because you avoid the greater capital cost of building power stations‘ said Greenpeace's Doug Parr to the Guardian. ‘We will of course be buying power when the wind is not blowing, but the interconnectors mean we can sell our wind power when it does, and we have the best wind resource in Europe.’ 

Not to mention there is concern about the supply of raw materials needed for each connector — each kilometer of cabling requires hundreds of tons of copper, an earth metal that is becoming scarce and expensive.  

A study by Poyry, a Finnish engineering and management consulting firm, claims that intermittency could still be an issue because weather patterns can expand over wide areas throughout Europe, which could cause widespread cloud cover and windless days. However, to avoid this problem the report notes that more interconnection lines would be necessary.  “Obstacles in the path of getting this going are larger than pretty much any other infrastructure,” said James Cox, the author of the report. 

Despite these uncertainties, others believe the supergrid is a smart investment. ‘There are pension funds and many investors looking for safe returns,’ Julian Scola, spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels, said to the New York Times. ‘Electricity infrastructure, which is a regulated business with regulated returns, ought to and does provide very safe and very attractive investment.’

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