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European wind co-operation could benefit all

By Dave Elliott

‘European cooperation could provide more stable wind power’. So says a new Imperial College study. Co-author Dr Iain Staffell, from Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, said: ‘Some weather regimes are characterised by storms rolling in from the Atlantic bringing high winds to northwest or southwest Europe, but these are accompanied by calm conditions in the east. Other regimes see calmer weather from the Atlantic and a huge drop in wind production in Germany, the British Isles and Spain. But at the same time, wind speeds consistently increase in southeast Europe, and this is why countries such as Greece could act as a valuable counterbalance to Europe’s current wind farms.’

The study notes that today’s wind farms are heavily concentrated in countries bordering the North Sea. This results in uneven wind electricity generation, because most capacity is installed in neighbouring countries with similar weather conditions.  A further concentration of capacity in the North Sea region is planned in the near future, which will exacerbate the problems for Europe’s power system, say the researchers. However, if European countries were to cooperate and set up future wind farms based on understanding of the continent-scale weather regimes, fluctuations in future wind energy could be reduced. For example, the planned development around the North Sea means 100 GW (100 large power stations) would need to be turned on or off to balance out changes in wind power production when the weather changes.  With a more cooperatively designed system, this could be reduced to just 20 GW across the continent. The Balkans, Greece, the western Mediterranean and northern Scandinavia are all potential sites for balancing. But it would require a major change in perspective.  Lead author of the study Dr Christian Grams said: ‘Adopting the new knowledge would require a paradigm shift in the planning strategies of countries with wind power potential and more European collaboration.’

There are other options for grid balancing, but the researchers say that energy storage technologies, or other renewable energies, would not by themselves be able to close the wind capacity gap, and that widely distributed wind power is the best option. Current storage technologies are more suited to compensating for shorter fluctuations of a few hours or days, and in order for solar to pick up the slack, solar energy capacity would have to be increased tenfold. Co-author Dr Stefan Pfenninger said: ‘The sun often shines when it’s calm, but in winter there is often not enough sunshine in central and northern Europe to produce sufficient electricity using solar panels.’

It’s a useful corrective to those who say we can only have renewables if there is a lot of storage, or fossil-fired backup capacity. During local lulls, the substantial renewable resource that is available elsewhere can also be used – some of it being conveniently phased so as to be available when needed. That was also a conclusion from an earlier study for Greenpeace, which suggested that, by 2030, assuming the EU was headed for a high renewables mix, over the year, many countries would be able to use it to export net excess renewable energy, notably Croatia, Denmark, Portugal, and Romania, given their large renewable resources. The only major net importers would be Estonia and Bulgaria.

Similarly, a Fraunhofer Institute study commissioned by Agora Energiewende found that greater integration of power systems in the Central Western European (CWE) region, i.e. France, Switzerland, Austria, the Benelux countries and Germany, could significantly help cut costs in balancing weather-related electricity fluctuations, while reducing demands on other parts of the system, and losses due to the need to curtail excess output.

However, it’s not clear whether there will always be enough surplus to trade when needed and whether it can actually be traded economically via the grid system, with a linked question being whether the pan-EU grid system could cope without enhancement. Although there are already some intergrid AC links between countries, to make this sort of long-distance balancing possible there would presumably be a need for extra/upgraded grid links, within countries and between them, to handle the trade. The 2013 pan-EU e-highways study suggested that the EU grid could cope up to 2030, but after that, as renewables expanded more and headed for near 100% by 2050, it would have to be upgraded significantly. The e-highways study put the cost at €100-400 bn, depending on scenario, although that would be offset by the improved use of energy sources, with up to 500TWh of renewable curtailment being avoided annually.

There would be other gains, offsetting the cost, including the ability to sell surpluses and import them at other times, so avoiding the cost of having extra capacity available. It may also provide access to the large storage capacity in countries like Norway with large pumped hydro potentials – assuming they were not overwhelmed.

Some studies have looked at issues like this for the UK, which is probably the worst case, since it would need extra undersea links, which are expensive. Even so studies have suggested that extra UK grid links were viable in most circumstances, and, the ability to export surplus green power would surely be one of them.

So too would the ability to import low carbon power during lulls in local availability, especially if carbon caps are seen as important.  The 2013 Pugwash 2050 High Renewables study found that exporting surplus UK green power via supergrid links to continental Europe might enable the UK to earn up to £15 bn p.a. net of imports. But that assumes demand for it would be there and that sufficient surplus renewable capacity would also be available from somewhere, when imports were needed.

The new Imperial study does suggest that it would be, and without extensions to CSP in North Africa, but more modelling would be needed to be sure and to get an idea of any extra grid needs and their capital costs.  The costs and benefit balance of making the trades will of course be market-dependent and that will depend on what market arrangements emerge in the post-Brexit situation. Will the UK stay within the newly emerging EU-wide Energy Union or be outside of it? The Imperial study does make the strategic/operational benefits of co-operation clear and the economic benefits also look like they could be substantial compared to the the price of isolation. However, there is also an argument for retaining as much energy independence as possible, via investing in storage, smart grid DSM and other local and national-level balancing measures, including more back-up/reserve plants, so as to avoid being reliant on imports from abroad. It’s the Brexit issue all over again.

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