Indicative of the growing momentum, yet another initiative recently entered the fray: the Friends of the Super-Grid. The group consists of established players in the energy logistics chain, including Areva of France, Prysmian of Italy, and Mainstream Renewable Power of Ireland as well as Germany’s Siemens and Hochtief. It has proposed a “phase one” project to connect England, Scotland, Germany and Norway at a cost estimated of around €34 billion.
That amount is close to the €30 billion projected by the North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative. That group, which launched at the end of last year, consists of the European Union member states Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as Norway, which is not part of the EU. Its goal is to spur construction of an offshore grid in the North Sea with connecting installations on the mainland. The countries hope to sign a memorandum of Understanding (MoU) later this year and lay the foundation for action.
Who Foots the Bill?
But the big question is: Who’s going to pay? Financing has been a sticking point in nearly all discussions about building super-grid infrastructure. It’s an expensive business – whether on land or at sea.
Alone in Germany, Professor Georg Erdmann, an expert on energy systems at the Technical University of Berlin, expects costs to connect new offshore wind parks through 2020 to soar beyond the figures that were initially projected two years ago. He said groups working on new German wind parks know more today and now agree that the initial cost estimates were far too low.
Greenpeace has looked at the costs of building high-voltage, long-distance onshore and offshore grids across Europe. The organization estimates that 34 existing high-voltage alternating current (HVAC) interconnections will need to be upgraded between neighboring countries at a cost of about €3 billion. At least another 17 high-voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnections will need to be installed for about €16 billion. And up to 11 new long-distance HVDC super-grid connections will be required for around €100 billion. The International Energy Agency (IEA), looking at only an upgrade of existing transmission assets in Europe, estimates investment of about € 200 billion through 2030.
Numerous financing schemes are under discussion. The North Sea Grid Initiative plans a mix of public and private financing. Adam Bruce, global head of corporate affairs at Mainstream and chairman of the RenewableUK interest group, envisions a financing model for offshore grids and super-grids similar to the one for current grids: A regulatory framework allows transmission system operators (TSOs) to build grids and operate them at regulated rate of return “so they can attract investment to build,” he said. “For offshore, of course, you will need higher rates of return because of the risks involved.”
Bruce expects a new group of pan-European TSOs to run the network. “These could be a combination of existing TSOs and new players,” he said. “They could be organized within a framework, like the Airbus industrial group.”
European grid planners picture a combination of interconnected grids: smart grids for intelligently connecting and distributing electricity from renewable sources; super grids for wide-area high-voltage distribution; and all of these integrated with existing onshore grids. Smart grids are already attracting a number of potential new players to the energy sector, including telecommunication companies. The networks will require advanced communication, monitoring and control systems to balance supply, demand, and storage from thousands of small renewable energy producers, in addition to existing energy companies.
Transmission Technology Debated
As for the choice of technology, Mainstream’s Bruce says HVDC and, in particular, HVDC Light are the preferred systems for offshore grids. HVDC Light, which is based on Voltage Source Converters (VSCs), is capable of transmitting high-voltage electricity for very long distances with minimum loss. The main advantage of HVDC Light cables over their HVAC counterparts is their reduced weight and dimensions, resulting in a higher power density. Put another way, the power they transport per kilogram of cable is higher.
But Antonella Battaglini, senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said there is “still an animated discussion about technologies” for new onshore grid installations, noting that approximately 90 percent of Europe’s grid infrastructure today is HVAC. “We will need to distribute electricity not only from renewable sources but also to storage sites,” she said. “This is where the discussion about AC and DC is most relevant.”
Battaglini has also been a key player in the launch of the Renewables Grid Initiative, which has brought non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenwatch together with TSOs, including Tennet and Vattenfall.
Plenty of other groups are researching grids for North Sea countries, including the European Wind Integration Study (EWIS) and the Irish Scottish Links on Energy Study (ISLES). Super-grid construction related to renewable energy is also a hot topic in the industry association European Network for Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), the European Commission’s Trans-European Networks for Electricity (TEN-E) and the Electricity Regional Initiative (ERI).
If renewable energies are to play a huge role in Europe’s ambitious targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 as EU leaders claim, then all these initiatives and other stakeholders need to come together and take action soon, experts say. “The 20-20 targets can’t be achieved in several European countries without extensive infrastructure expansion for renewable energy,” Battaglini said. “It’s time for a common voice for grid extension.”
John Blau is a U.S. journalist based in Germany. He specializes in business, technology and environmental reporting and also produces extensive industry research. John has written extensively about environmental issues in Germany.