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Europe and supergrids – balancing grids across the EU

By Dave Elliott

A pan-European supergrid network could play a major role in helping Europe achieve an ambitious 45% share of renewable energy by 2030 at low extra cost, by balancing grids and limiting curtailment,  according to a new Greenpeace report,  PowE[R]2030, based on analysis by Energynautics, and using data from the International Energy Agency.

Over the past few years, Greenepeace has produced a number scenarios for renewables in the EU, under the title of Energy [R]evolution. Some of the conclusions in earlier reports  were remarkable enough: the EU 27’s renewable electricity share could rise to 67% by 2030, with the installed capacity of renewables reaching 989 GW and 1,480 GW by 2050, with renewables then supplying 96% of the EU’s electricity. See for example of the grids.pdf

But in its latest PowE[R]2030 report, which includes new EU member Croatia, plus Switzerland and Norway, the 2030 contribution is even higher. It says renewables could reach 1,170GW, including pumped hydro storage capacity, supplying about 3000TWh pa by 2030, if supergrid links were built linking resources across the whole region – that’s 77% of electricity, helping to get 45% of Europe’s total energy from renewables by 2030, compared to the currently proposed EU target of 27%.

By 2030 it sees wind supplying around 1,500TWh pa. from 349 GW on land, 145GW offshore, while PV supplies around 750TWh from 370GW. Croatia, Switzerland and Norway, along with Sweden and Spain, take the lead, reaching near 100% electricity by 2030. And it says the cost of the pan-EU HVDC supergrid would be offset by the savings from avoiding curtailment of excess renewable output.  The supergrid would allow for imports to meet interim short-term shortfalls, while, over the year, many countries would be able to use it export net excess energy, notably Croatia, Denmark, Portugal, and Romania.  These countries, along with Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, could on average meet over 100% of their energy loads from renewables. The only major net importers would be Estonia and Bulgaria.

The report argues that a supergrid network would make it easier to balance and trade these large renewable capacities across the region. Without that, and with the grid dominated by large inflexible coal and nuclear plants, there would be operational conflicts-  renewable energy operators would be forced to switch off their generators when regional demand was too high, with curtailment of up to 60% of some capacity at times, leading to a €4.9bn per year loss (assuming a power price of €60/MWh).

For some countries, overall annual curtailment levels without supergrid links could be very high by 2030 – above 12% for the UK, and 17% for Ireland, in the ‘conflict with inflexible coal and nuclear’ scenario. However, the report says that even only reducing overall Europe-wide curtailment by just 2% (from 4.6% to 2.6%) would, by 2030, save roughly equal to the costs of installing the supergrid grid- €60bn.  With the supergrid in place, curtailment would be well below 3% of renewable capacity in most countries, although Ireland, Denmark and especially the UK, with their big wind components, were the exceptions, offshore wind taking the UK up to near 10% curtailment. But of course that may not all have to be lost – some could be converted to hydrogen by electrolysis, this gas being stored and used to generate power for balancing when renewables were low and demand high.

Greenpeace however do not see the UK having much in the way of net green power export capability by 2030, which is a little surprising given its large wind potential and the high curtailment risk identified by the report. But perhaps the UK, with its high wind reliance, is seen as having to import a lot of power to balance occasional wind shortfalls, reducing any net surplus. And even with the supergrid, it could be that some surplus could not be sold via the supergrid (due low demand for it in other countries, since wind plant output could well be high there too), and so some wind output would still have to be curtailed. There again, the wind-to-hydrogen option might alter that, reducing the need  for balancing imports at times of low UK wind supply. Odd then that, although it does mention smart grids and demand side management and, in its other wider reports, it sees hydrogen production playing a major role in heating and for transport fuel supply, this report doesn’t look at the wind-to-gas balancing option.

The UK has shown some interest in supergrids, or at least new interconnectors across the channel. There is already a 2GW French link, a 1GW Dutch link and a 1GW Belgian link is planned for 2018, with more to follow, including a 1.4GW link to Norway and a link to Denmark.   It is clear that new links between the UK and the rest of the EU would add a lot of flexibility to the energy system, but they are expensive. For example the 250 km long 1GW BritNed undersea link cost £540m. Will their huge cost really be offset by their earning power?

Last December DECC produced a paper  ‘More Interconnection: Improving Energy Security and Lowering Bills’, which looked the ‘price arbitrage opportunities’ of having supergrid interconnectors i.e. the extent to which interconnectors could make their living out of speculation as to price differentials between the UK and the rest of Europe.  This may not be as straight-forward as you might think.  As Dr Alan Whitehead MP has pointed out, ‘with moves towards a more integrated and liberalised European energy market the likelihood of these differentials decreases. Perversely therefore, greater connectivity on a merchant basis and a level energy playing field means a lower likelihood of additional interconnection being achieved’.

However, the DECC strategy paper did also question ‘whether price arbitrage opportunities adequately capture the benefits of interconnection including security of supply’.  After all, these grid links could help balance local variable supply and demand across a wide geographical area. And, as noted above, that has real value. For example, the export of net surplus wind-derived power was seen as earning £15bn p.a in the Pugwash ‘80%  renewables by 2050’ UK scenario. Though that assumes there would be demand for it, so that there would really be net overall exports over the imports needed at times of low renewables but high demand. And, as noted above, this may not away be the case, as seems to be implied by the Greenpeace analysis.  Clearly there is a need for more detailed modeling of trade patterns, and the role so wind-to-gas/storage, as well of course for more debate on the policy side; e.g. who would fund and run the supergrid?

As I have noted in earlier posts, some HVDC links are already being made to offshore wind farms in the North sea and ultimately, as this network expands, it could become part of a full supergrid inter-connector linking to on-land schemes up across Europe, like the North-South supergrid planned in Germany. So the Greenpeace plan is far from fanciful.  The big issue is whether the political will is there to face the undoubted problems that will emerge as attempts are made to integrate Europe’s power systems.  For more, from an upbeat perspective, see:

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