Interconnectors — Moving Clean Power Around a Continent

In the U.K., National Grid (NG) is the utility that owns the high voltage electricity network in England and Wales. It is also one of four British gas distribution companies. It’s a big player — “joining everything up” (NG writes) — within the U.K.’s overall energy system.

Now, NG is working on projects to “join up” the U.K. and continental Europe. One project is a 240-km (149-mile), 1,000-MW subsea “interconnector” between NG substation facilities in Hampshire, England, and Réseau de Transport d’Electricité (RTE), the French Transmission System Operator at the Tourbe substation, Normandy, France. Similar projects with Denmark and Belgium are in the works.

The new English-French project is formally known as IFA2 — “Interconnexion France Angleterre 2.” It’s NG’s second French link; the first was built 30 years ago. Regulatory approvals started in 2014. NG wants completion in 2020.

The project took a big step forward in April when the Swiss company ABB was awarded a contract worth €270 million for two high-voltage direct current converter stations. Conversion enables efficient and reliable long distance transmission, with minimum losses. ABB’s technology can regulate fluctuations and power restoration, benefits, obviously, both for operations and reliability.

There are a number of important drivers behind the new interconnectors. First, and always important, is the prospect of lower electric rates. NG’s website explains that electric prices are higher in England than on the continent. New electricity market access could be worth £1 billion (US $1.3 billion) annually to U.K. customers in lower energy prices. U.K.’s Department of Energy & Climate Change writes that “under some scenarios, GB consumers could see benefits to 2040 of up to £9billion (US $11.7 billion) (net present value).”

Second, European policy makers want a more singular electricity market. The European Commission (EC) has a target that at least 10 percent of a member state’s power plant generation can be transported to neighboring countries. Cross-continent connections can provide better utilization of intermittent wind and solar generation, balancing production and usage within and across much larger markets and landscapes.

David Lavender is an NG spokesperson. He said that interconnectors “bring numerous benefits, including increased security of supply for the U.K. (and) access to broader and more diverse sources of electricity. They allow access to more renewable and low-carbon electricity from countries like Norway (hydro).” Lavender said “there is broad support for interconnection as part of the U.K.’s energy mix.”

To advance a continental market, the EC, in 2013, established a listing of major infrastructure projects judged to be “Projects of Common Interest,” (PCI). IFA2 is on that list. PCIs also must contribute to affordable, secure and sustainable energy, market integration, competition and reduce CO2 emissions.

Because of these common interests, the EC supports PCIs with public-sided benefits, including financial subsidies. PCIs have access to a total of 5.35 billion euros (US $6 billion) in funding from the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), a fund for boosting energy, transport and digital infrastructure between 2014 and 2020. This funding is intended to speed up projects and attract private investors. NG’s new interconnector is expected to cost around £700 million (US $911 million). In addition, PCIs may benefit from accelerated planning and lower administrative costs due to streamlined environmental assessments. The EC has declared that PCI permitting must be finished within three and a-half-years. That’s a blink-of-an-eye compared to many U.S. energy projects.

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