Meg Cichon, Associate Editor, RenewableEnergyWorld.com
August 13, 2012 | 11 Comments
New Hampshire, U.S.A. -- 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.’