Hopes still high for supergrid, but plans slow to a crawl

Source: Jeremy Lovell, E&E European correspondent • Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012

LONDON — The much-vaunted European electricity supergrid, supposed to assist the birth of a low-carbon electricity future by making renewable power from the wind-blown north and sun-soaked south flow seamlessly across the continent, is moving at a snail’s pace as political will withers and economies ebb.

Renewable energy industry participants are taking tentative steps, but they are hampered by the shifting economic and political landscape as the global economic downturn shows no sign of evaporating and the homegrown European financial crisis seems to get more entrenched with every move to end it.

“Is the supergrid actually happening? Not yet, I must say. There are many proposals on the table to have interconnectors in Europe between member states, but they are being presented in the same way as in the past from one country to another,” said Ana Aguado, CEO of industry lobby group Friends of the Super Grid.

“Of course, onshore, this is the case. But when you are in the sea, there are possibilities … to already make a mass interconnected system like there could be in the North Sea. But proposals are still being made as before, so the supergrid as we intend it is not happening,” she 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 for the bloc’s 27 member states. This means that current energy laws and policies, while having been dictated from Brussels, tend to be heavily nationally focused.

Many cross-border interconnectors do exist among the countries of Europe. But crossing from one national jurisdiction to another in mainland Europe is fraught with legal twists and turns involving security of national supply, let alone the simple physical ability of the relevant national grids to handle the power flows. Those barriers multiply when more than two countries are involved — such as in proposed multicountry regional grids as precursors to the supergrid.

“There are many legal constraints in place and few signs of them changing. The legislation is very nationalistic, and there is very little incentive for investors to invest,” Aguado said. “That has to change. There is no other way to decarbonize the energy sector. But it is step by step and quite slow.”

The supergrid’s supporters hope that once the 2020 deadline has passed, national energy policies may start to become more outward-looking — but the inertia is huge and the costs are vast.

‘More complicated than anybody imagined’

And for Diane Green, European policy manager for the North Sea with the United Kingdom’s National Grid, there is no certainty that a supergrid will eventually happen.

“We are working towards 2020 time scales, and we don’t yet know whether a supergrid or an integrated North Sea grid is necessary, because it does depend on the location and the volume and the timing of the wind connections,” she said.

“The policymakers have a very difficult decision to take here. They have to prove that these things are ‘no regret’ decisions. They also have to demonstrate that it is in the wider benefit of the European consumers, but also the national consumers, because the cost and benefit sharing of these assets is quite complicated. It is not always obvious who should bear the cost and who should get the benefit, because you can’t dictate where the flows go,” she added.

There are a number of industry-led potential international renewable power projects, including concentrating solar power project Desertec — supposed to harvest the power of the desert sun of North Africa and send its power north — and Medgrid, which involves many of the same players and many of the same countries but features a more diverse distribution system. Both have fancy websites but are in reality still little more than that.

Belgian transmission system operator Elia is already in discussions with the country’s government and offshore operators about building a hub that could one day be a link point to other North Sea nations with that region’s vast potential for wind power generation.

To explore this possibility, the 10-nation North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative was set up in December 2010 by national energy ministers, bringing together E.U. nations Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg and non-E.U. member Norway.

This group is supposed to come up with concrete plans by the end of this year but looks very likely to miss that deadline after encountering major hurdles.

“The fundamental question they are trying to answer is, should we continue to develop this resource nationally … or are there benefits enough to take a more coordinated, international approach by doing it together?” said Green

“It is fair to say the majority of our work is still to be done. It is a more complicated task than anybody imagined. … I think we are going to apply for some sort of extension with the ministers. But I am not sure they will grant the extension.

“There are a number of different regimes in each country. The obligations in each country are quite different. It is a big, big task, and I think we are beginning to uncover a lot of differences. The barriers are more broad-ranging than a simple solution will resolve,” she said.

Interest, but little momentum

For Aguado, the problem is that although the Offshore Grid Initiative was set up as a ministerial initiative, the political will for action has since evaporated. And, she said, with lots of hydroelectric power but a weak internal transmission system, Norway is not showing any great urgency in connecting to Europe.

This is despite power system operator Statnett’s avowed ambition to make Norway Europe’s battery, using its hydro plants to supply the grid and surplus wind and solar power from the south to pump the water back up again for reuse.

While there would be social benefits to Norway from having access to surplus power from the south, when the electricity flows were reversed and Norway was sending power to the European Union, its domestic prices would tend to rise.

“Politically, they have to get comfortable. It is a difficult balance, but I wouldn’t say that Norway is going to build a whole load of interconnectors,” said Green.

The United Kingdom recently signed agreements with both Norway and Iceland to develop energy cooperation, including the possibility of laying lengthy undersea power cables in Norway’s case to tap into its hydro reserves and in Iceland’s to gain access to its vast store of geothermal energy.

“The purpose of those two agreements is to show there is a political momentum behind trying to get connections between the countries. They are not offering us any funding. They are not offering up any way of doing this. There is no actual defined project behind this,” Green said.

Friends of the Super Grid estimates that creation of a supergrid would entail laying 30,000 kilometers (19,000 miles) of cable in the North Sea by 2050 — and undersea cable doesn’t come cheap.

Overcoming the public’s reluctance

The European Network of Transmission System Operators, which groups the European Union’s electricity grid operators, recently said that its members would need to spend $128 billion over the next decade to refurbish or build 52,000 kilometers (32,000 miles) of high-voltage power lines.

There also is the matter of public acceptance. While many people accept the need for new and cleaner energy sources for energy security if not because of climate change, in many countries there is an automatic outcry against any fresh proposals for onshore wind farms as disfiguring the countryside and an even greater reaction against new electricity pylons to carry the high-tension cables.

One answer is to bury those cables. But that entails huge extra costs, as they need major cooling systems to take away the heat that is generated by the traveling electrons.

“Grids have a very big problem, and that is public acceptance. In Germany, there is public acceptance of the wind turbines in the north and solar panels in the south, but they didn’t want to have a grid to carry the power,” Aguado said.

Because Germany’s north-south grid is old, needs replacing and strengthening, and cannot cope with the quantity of power it needs to carry, much of the renewable power produced in either region must be exported. But then again, in many instances the grids in the recipient nations are also old and also have trouble coping with the incoming power flows.

This is one of the main problems with the way European energy policy has so far been operated. It has produced major sources of renewable energy, in many cases far away from the centers of consumption, but failed to develop the systems to carry that power where it is needed.

“To rectify this you really need a very strong political will and then the necessary regulatory changes. In order to come up with a supergrid at European level, you need a regulation that is dedicated to it, and for that, you need an amazing level of political support. That is not currently there,” Aguado said.