August 6, 2021

Special Report: Business of Green: An Energy Supergrid for Europe Faces Big Obstacles

LONDON — Advocates of renewable energy say an electricity supergrid could enhance the clean-power industry by connecting power sources like wind farms in Scotland and solar arrays in Spain or North Africa to the population centers of Europe.

The technical arguments for a significantly expanded and upgraded power network in Europe are clear, they say. Yet the political, regulatory and economic obstacles are formidable.

A supergrid “is absolutely essential” if Europe is to make widespread use of clean power supplies and significantly cut its emissions of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide, said Doug Parr, chief scientist at the British arm of Greenpeace, the environmental group.

But “it’s not garnering political weight and support,” he said recently by telephone. “Things are proceeding, but they could proceed a little quicker if there was buy-in at a higher level” among the European Union’s institutions in Brussels.

With its windy weather, Britain could be a big beneficiary of better international power connections, eventually exporting energy to Continental Europe, experts in the renewable energy sector say. Supergrid advocates hoped London would be a driving force behind the idea, but they have not seen a significant push from the government of Prime Minister David Cameron, said Ana Aguado, chief executive of Friends of the Supergrid, an advocacy group in Brussels made up of companies that would help build the international network.

Britain is working with countries including France, Germany, Norway and Sweden to negotiate the North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative, a planned network of underwater cables that would connect offshore wind farms and other power sources to nearby countries.

The project, likely to take decades, is seen as a potential building block for a broader European grid that could eventually stretch from Ireland to the Baltic states and as far south as North Africa, carrying large power loads on highly efficient direct-current cables.

Some cross-border power connections exist, but many European countries still produce and supply most of their own electricity or have links to just one other country. Experts say a richer cross-border network will reduce power prices for consumers and make supplies more secure by promoting competition and distributing surplus production more efficiently.

Renewable power advocates say improved connections are essential for making sources like wind and solar practical on a large scale. Potential energy-producing areas, like the windy coasts of Scotland and Ireland and the deserts of North Africa, are often far from larger cities with their power-hungry consumers.

Broad networks could also help ease one of renewable energy’s biggest problems: intermittency. When the wind drops in Britain, it may still be strong in Germany, or the sun may be shining in Tunisia. Households drawing power from a grid thousands of miles wide are less likely to be affected by the vagaries of any individual source’s output. That in turn means less need for expensive backup generating capacity from power plants that use natural gas or coal.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee of Britain’s main parliamentary chamber, the House of Commons, said in a report in September that a drastically improved grid would be crucial for the viability of the country’s plans for significant investment in offshore wind power.

For now, Britain “is virtually an energy island,” the report said, adding that the current approach of linking each offshore wind farm directly to land, rather than to a wider network, was costly and inefficient.

But the report listed several caveats about the development of a Europe-wide grid, saying the cost would probably be high and the challenge of coordinating national energy regulations would be daunting.

Tim Yeo, the committee’s Conservative chairman, said by phone recently that better connections would give the British energy industry access to big markets. It would also enable the country to make more use of wind power domestically by ensuring that imported power would be available in calm weather.

But he warned that the decades-long time frame for investing in energy infrastructure inevitably contrasted with the shorter-term focus of politicians.

Because energy is a heavily regulated sector, one of the biggest obstacles to building a supergrid is the long negotiations required to bridge differences among individual countries’ rules.

Budget woes, too, may limit the availability of investment from Brussels and national capitals.

Still, some advocates said poor economic conditions could actually make it easier to raise private financing.

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