The Green Report
Europe Envisions Renewable Energy Supergrid
Solar panels gleam amidst peacefully grazing sheep in Germany. Hydro-electric dams rise majestically in the icy fjords of Norway. Wind turbines whir non-stop along the coasts of Scotland. And if all goes well, they will soon be networked by a single giant supergrid.
Nine countries, namely Germany, Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg, are uniting to build Europe’s first renewable energy supergrid. Energy ministers from these nations met in December 2009 to sign the North Seas’ Countries Offshore Grid Initiative even as the COP15 summit in Copenhagen was beginning.
According to plan, this mammoth structure will arise in the North Sea and is tentatively expected to produce 30 gigawatts (GW) of power. Over the course of the next ten years, miles and miles of high voltage direct current (HVDC) cables will snake beneath the North Sea, connecting the huge switchboard to solar farms and other sources of energy. All this, at an estimated cost of $43.07 billion.
A renewable energy supergrid of this scale is a first and will fast forward Europe’s goal to harness 20% of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2020. Currently, offshore wind provides 0.3% of Europe’s electricity, but Europe has the capability to generate more than 100 GW of electricity from offshore wind projects in various stages of development. Once completed, these projects will be the equivalent of 100 large coal-fired plants and could account for up to 10% of the European Union’s (EU) electricity needs by 2030. But there are other added benefits. “A new multi-billion euro European industry is emerging; one that will create thousands of jobs, provide affordable electricity, boost Europe’s energy security and help fight climate change,” points out Justin Wilkes, policy director of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) in the Renewable Energy Focus, an online magazine.
But perhaps more importantly, the development of the European supergrid provides a chance for renewable energy to show its true mettle. One of the primary criticisms leveled at alternative energy sources is that they are dependent on the whims of the weather. However, with multiple sources juicing up the supergrid, electricity will be in constant supply from wherever the wind blows and the sun shines. It will also function as a huge battery that stores precious electricity when demand is low. Hans Erik Kristofferson, who heads the Danish national grid, Energinet, told the New York Times, “The benefit is that you would be able to send the electricity where it is needed and when it is needed.”
The concept of a supergrid linking countries is not new. In the U.S. the project titled “Tres Amigas” might be the closest concept to a supergrid. Proposed in October 2009, the plan attempts to interlink the three main electrical grids that serve the East, West and Texas through a single transmission grid. Located in Clovis, New Mexico, the superstation will harness the abundance of solar and wind power scattered across the American continent. That way, there is an easy conduit for renewable energy to flow when and where required. It would also open the doors to new markets for wind energy and solar power trade spurring investment and development, similar to the North Sea supergrid. Europe currently has one of the largest synchronous grids in the world, linking 24 countries that include most of the members of the EU. And there are already a few smaller green supergrids in place as well. For example, Britain has access to France’s nuclear power through undersea cables in the English Channel while Denmark trades its wind energy for hydroelectricity from Norway.
But are the participating European countries geared for the ambitious North Sea supergrid project? Germany is already one of the leaders in alternative energy with the second largest solar power project in the world to its credit, while Denmark boasts the world’s only island that runs completely on renewable energy. In terms of wind power, the U.K. and France have raced ahead of Denmark, the long worshipped icon of wind energy. Although the European supergrid does pose some challenges, including security concerns, the step forward is an important one. As Wilkes predicts, “The North Sea grid would be the backbone of the future European electricity supergrid.”
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