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Supergrids still on the agenda

By Dave Elliott

The aim of the German-led Desertec Industrial Initiative is to support and link up solar and other renewable-energy projects in the desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East via supergrids, with some power being brought back to the EU. Certainly, many countries in the region are embracing solar, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Jordon. Egypt already has a large concentrated solar power (CSP) plant just outside of Cairo, and also a significant wind programme. Qatar is to invest up to $20bn in a 1.8 GW solar plant scheduled for 2014. Tunisia is developing a 2 GW CSP project. Morocco also has ambitious plans for CSP, and the Saudis plan to have 41 GW of PV/CSP solar capacity by 2032, via a $109bn programme. Whether it’s CSP of large-scale focused PV (CPV), it seems to be a booming area: Algeria, which already has a 130 MW hybrid CSP plant, took out a full-page ad in the Financial Times last November which proclaimed that Algeria was “creating the path beyond oil”.

However, these projects may well just stay as local energy suppliers, at least for a while. According to a report last year in European Energy Review (29/11/12), the success of Germany’s Energiewende green energy programme has led some of Desertec’s original supporters, such as Greenpeace Germany and the German Green Party, to conclude that Germany doesn’t need Desertec. Even Germany’s environment minister Peter Altmaier said recently that “Desertec has become much less important since Germany’s renewables boom.” The European Energy Review report concluded “Germans may see Desertec as a welcome helping hand, they do not view it as a crucial part of their Energiewende.”

Siemens and Bosch pulled out of the Desertec programme last year, but Desertec remains confident given that it still has wide industrial support (including from E.ON and ABB) and it is still working with and supporting projects in North Africa, with CSP being only one of the options – there is also huge wind potential in the region. There are also new potential project links elsewhere, for example in Asia. One such project envisages a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) supergrid linking to wind projects in Mongolia, while, separately, the Gobitec initiative proposes links to CSP projects in the Gobi desert: http://www.gobitec.org and www.desertec.org/press/press-releases/1210 24-01-wind-power-from-the-gobi-desert

Even more ambitiously, why stop at just generation? Although HVDC can be very efficient at shifting power long distances, there may be local excess generated at times, so why not store it until demand at the other end of the link is high? This could avoid grid congestion problems, which some see as becoming an issue, although initially more in the EU than at the source end of the grid: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378779612003197

However, with large projects, local storage might be very valuable. There is the option of creating vast new lakes in depressions in desert areas for seawater storage and pumped-storage operations using power from concentrated solar power plants. The huge below-sea-level Qattara Depression in Libya might be a possible site, or the Danakil Depression in Eritrea and Ethiopia. That’s pretty speculative, but if an when CSP or CPV gets going on a significant scale, it might prove worthwhile: http://elpipes.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/pumped-storage-at-danakil-depression-in.html

Perhaps a little less fanciful, there is a very large renewable-energy potential in northern Russia and Siberia, which might be exploited. Despite the huge wind potential, put at more than 350 GW, Russia has a very small renewable-energy programme, aiming to supply 4.5% of its electricity by 2020, with only around 11 MW of wind capacity so far, and although it’s now planning to expand that a bit, to 150 MW, it is still clearly leaving most of it untouched. Instead it is focusing on exporting gas and developing nuclear power. But there have been suggestions that opportunities exist for exporting green energy from Russia to the EU, which might help stimulate development of its huge renewables resource more rapidly.

A recent paper in Energy Policy argued that “EU-Russian cooperation in the renewable energy field would present a win–win situation: (EU) member states could achieve their targets on the basis of Russia’s renewable-energy potential, while Russia could begin to develop a national renewable-energy industry without risking potential price increases for domestic consumers – a concern of great political sensitivity in Russia.”

Some of this might simply involve importing biomass from Russia, but there is also the option of electricity imports via new supergrid interconnections, although clearly there are huge political and economic issues involved. See: Anatole Boute & Patrick Willems 2012 RUSTEC: Greening Europe’s energy supply by developing Russia’s renewable energy potential Energy Policy 5 618

Long-distance transfer using HVDC grids is quite efficient (with energy loses of around 2%/1000 km compared with maybe 10%/1000km for conventional AC grids), but there are plenty of problems with the supergrid idea, not least its high initial capital cost. And for schemes such as Desertec to work there will be need for careful local negotiation over way leaves and, for the local generation plants, over the distribution of costs and benefits (see http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/competitors-and-local-opposition-threatens-desertec-solar-plan-a-892332.html). But the Desertec scheme envisages most of the CSP power being used locally – only 15% being sent to the EU, so local use would dominate.

Despite the problems, enthusiasm remains high. In a joint declaration last year the Desertec Industrial Initiative and Medgrid, the French-led transmission group, along with lobby groups such as Friends of the Supergrid, the Renewables Grid Initiative and the Climate Parliament group, said there could be “No transition without transmission,” and backed grid upgrade links across the EU and to and in nearby regions. See: www.medgrid-psm.com/en/

Political and economic pressures may slow them but supergrid projects of various kinds seem bound to spread as more renewables are added to networks. There are already plans for linking up wind projects in and across the North Sea; given its huge renewables expansion programme, Germany needs to reconfigure and strengthen its national grid system; enthusiasts in Japan are looking to supergrids to help top up and balance their new renewables programme; and China is building large HVDC links to integrate its massive hydro and wind projects. And there is the ambitious Atlantic Wind Connection offshore grid proposed for off the east coast of the USA, linking up 7 GW of offshore wind projects: http://atlanticwindconnection.com

It may be developed piecemeal, and a long way from some of the wilder dreams about global supergrids, but the elements of regional supergrid systems look like they will emerge.

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