A European supergrid? Or a European super flop!

By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, February 2, 2010
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So much excitement has been ignited by the prospect of a European "supergrid," which joins the renewable power sources of participating countries with highly efficient under-sea cables, enabling a continent-wide renewable electricity transmission network, that nine countries have promised to draw up official plans later this year, to become involved in the project. Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have promised to participate in the North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative, and hope to have begun building the cable in the North Sea within the next decade.

On paper, connecting Germany's vast wind energy farms with Sweden's extensive renewable energy sources, to France's gigantic tidal power stations, to provide an underground European "energy roadmap," sounds like "the answer," but in reality there are many obstacles standing in the way of achieving a low carbon Europe by means of a deep sea cable network. While the likes of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy publicly announce their backing of the project, seeing it as the answer to the "unreliability" of many renewable power sources, the hurdles the project is likely to face remain relatively unaddressed.

Even Lord Hunt, the UK's energy and climate change minister, described the "supergrid" as a "long-term dream." While the countries officially signing to initiate work on the supergrid's long journey to completion are undoubtedly examples of European vision and ambition in green energy policy, those more sceptical of the project believe it could remain just a political declaration.

The lack of the appropriate technology needed to complete the project is a major problem and one that has had little consideration in public commentary about the project. The ten year time-scale to construct the network has been criticized as being unrealistic.

The German daily newspaper, Die Welt, wrote: "The notion that a North Sea grid could be finished in ten years is unrealistic. It's taken ten years to build a normal high-capacity grid in the Munster countryside in Germany. The technology still doesn't exist to finish such a project. Necessary transformer stations for DC currents haven't been developed. And no energy firm would sink 30 billion euros in the North Sea before the technology is up to speed."

Despite the recent buzz surrounding the supergrid, harnessing the power of one region's renewable energy source with another region's, is not an entirely new concept. In the U.S. the prospect of a national, high-voltage electricity supergrid was ruminated in 2005, when Dr Steven Chu, the secretary of energy and Nobel laureate, pitched the concept to Samuel Bodman, George W. Bush's energy secretary. Although the US federal government is now seriously considering the possibility of "connecting America' via an electrical "supergrid," scepticism behind such a project are beginning to surface.

To install such a project it would cost up to 30 billion euros, and this hefty cost has been mentioned in most literature about the grid. It has been announced that most of the funding for the grid is going to come from private sources, the EU Commission has promised to provide 165 million euros to initiate the project. While a meeting has been set up on February 9, for project coordinators from each nation to discuss such issues, allocating the cost fairly between the countries involved is bound to be difficult. Fair funding is something Richard Lordan, the Electric Power Research Institute's technical director of power delivery and utilization, questions in a discussion about the American super grid. Lordan said: "The challenge will be in how the costs are allocated so that those who benefit pay accordingly. Areas with abundant wind will benefit because they have access to customers for their product, and load centres on the coasts benefit by having low-cost, clean power."

This same criticism could be applied to the European supergrid, as with such extensive areas and different nations involved, distributing the cost fairly while considering the areas which are likely to reap the most benefits, would undoubtedly prove difficult.

It may have been dubbed as "the European answer to the failed climate summit in Copenhagen," and could mark a new era in low-carbon living and cross-border competition within the energy sector, but the challenges of such a project are immense, and need to be intensely considered if a second climate change flop is not to occur.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:



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