Europe is getting lots of renewable energy; the looming headache is how to transmit it

Source: Jeremy Lovell, E&E European correspondent • Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

LONDON — Europe’s rush for renewable electricity sources to combat climate change has far outpaced the ability of the grid system to carry the new power to where it is needed. The problem is compounded by the fact that most energy policies remain firmly domestic, according to Daniel Dobbeni, head of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, ENTSO-E.

And the imbalance is likely to get much worse before it gets any better, he told a recent U.K. National Grid seminar on possible future energy scenario

The sun sets over power lines near Bonn, Germany. Europe’s poorly coordinated and underfinanced electric grid may soon be under severe strain from growing supplies of solar and wind power. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Germany, already loading up with a total of around 60 gigawatts of wind and solar photovoltaic power capacity, suffers from an antiquated grid. It will be stretched to the breaking point if either solar or wind gets anywhere near capacity output, let alone both at the same time. A further 50 GW is expected to be installed in the next decade, but only 12 GW more of transmission capacity.

“Renewable energy is the real game-changer,” Dobbeni explained, noting that variations of Germany’s problem extend through the entire E.U. bloc. “But transmission capacity is lagging the huge development of variable generation.”

With existing and expected major expansion of wind power generation capacity in the north of the 27-nation European Union, solar photovoltaic power in the south and biomass and the potential of wave and tidal power east and west, he said, there would be unprecedented massive flows of renewable power to and from all points of the compass across the bloc.

He added that as early as 2020, about 25 percent of all power flows in the European Union could be from wind and solar PV alone.

Grid financing, political acceptance remain frontier issues

Although there has been some experience in point-to-point high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission lines, with their far higher efficiency than the standard variety, the idea of creating a vast, pan-European network of them is still frontier territory.

Dobbeni said ENTSO-E calculated that over the next decade, about $134 billion would have to be spent on adding 50,000 kilometers of new transmission lines, including building HVDC corridors spanning north, south, east and west.

But while many people favor renewable power development — not least where they can make money from it through feed-in tariffs — there is no such warm reception for the expansion of overhead power line networks to actually make the electricity usable.

Burying cables is a possible option, but it also vastly increases the cost, not just because of the physical work involved, but also because of the cooling systems that are necessary to deal with the large amount of heat produced from the cables carrying the electricity.

Europe’s huge growth of domestic micro-generation devices that feed into the local grids at unpredictable times and in unpredictable volumes compounds the difficulty transmission system operators face, Dobbeni explained. They must manage these vast power flows and try to predict them down to an hourly basis in their struggle to balance supply and demand.

A key factor in supporting and enabling the smooth, albeit tardy, development of the grid system would be the creation of a highly liquid international electricity market to smooth out the hourly highs and lows of production and demand, he added.

But there was one fundamental problem facing the electricity grid owners and operators. While there were pan-European Union goals and targets for renewable energy, carbon reduction and electricity market development, by and large, the coordination of all this started and stopped in Brussels, Dobbeni said.

A ‘disconnect’ when it comes to coordination

“In ENTSO-E, we have learned since being set up in 1951 that if you interconnect your power systems, you have to cooperate. But this is not happening at a country level,” Dobbeni said. “Today, there is not a single country in Europe that is discussing with its neighbors whether what it is putting on the table is compatible. We have the risk of having 27 different capacity mechanisms.”

Power systems have to be designed, built and operated in a coordinated manner, and this is simply not happening, Dobbeni said. “There is a disconnect between what is agreed in Brussels and what then happens nationally,” he said.

By 2020, under its renewable energy strategy, the European Union is obliged to get 20 percent of its final power consumption from renewables, with that total broken down into individual national targets. This means that current energy laws and policies, while having been dictated from Brussels, tend to be heavily nationally focused.

Energy experts say this is because policymakers have a very difficult balance to achieve in first agreeing and then implementing E.U. decisions.

They have to prove that their economic projections come close to eventual needs while demonstrating how an upgraded grid would benefit both European and national consumers because the cost and benefit sharing of assets is quite complicated. It is not always obvious who should bear the cost and who should get the benefit

But it is not just generation and transmission of low-carbon power that has to be coordinated. In order to reduce demand, behavior change must either be forced or encouraged through higher prices, more efficient appliances and better public awareness of the costs and benefits of new energy options, Dobbeni said.

But although some E.U. countries are going flat-out to develop or improve electricity demand management through the wholesale rollout of smart meters in homes and factories, others haven’t begun to do anything. “We urgently need more demand-side management,” Dobbeni concluded.