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European supergrid gaining momentum

The failure to build the grid, it says, will severely curtail the effectiveness of new renewable generating capacity, such as the UK's burgeoning offshore wind sector.

A lack of interconnectivity between European national power grids means surplus power generated by intermittent resources, such as wind and solar, in one part of the continent cannot be directed to areas of high demand elsewhere and is going to waste. The European Wind Energy Association estimates that 10% of Europe's electricity requirements could be met by offshore wind, but only if its development is supported by a pan-European power grid. At present, more than 90% of electricity generated in Europe is consumed in the country where it is produced.

Friends of the Supergrid (FOSG), comprising 10 companies that want to build the new connections, argues that, with more than 30 gigawatts (GW) of new UK offshore wind power planned by 2020 (PE 2/10 p29), speed is of the essence. It claims connections can be built quickly, once political decisions have been made to proceed with the project.

"This technology is not a great leap," Eddie O'Connor, chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power said at FOSG's London launch in March. However, the group concedes that meshing together a patchwork of differing national grid standards could prove challenging. FOSG comprises 3E, Areva, DEME Blue Energy, Elia, Hochtief Construction, Mainstream, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Prysmian Cables & Systems, Siemens and Visser & Smit Marine Contracting.

A Europe-wide grid could involve wind and solar resources from southern Europe – and even power from the putative Desertec solar project in the Sahara Desert, if that is fully realised. However, the first steps would be the construction of high-voltage direct-current (HVDC), long-distance power lines to connect offshore wind projects in the North Sea with the UK and its European near-neighbours, together with a spur to Norway.

The Norwegian connection is regarded as crucial to the grid, because massive hydro-electric power capacity in that country, some 27 GW, could be used to balance intermittent output from wind farms. However, not all of this would be available for export, as Norway's own average demand is around 15 GW and its peak winter demand is over 20 GW.

The supergrid idea has been knocking about for several years and has the support of EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs, but co-ordination efforts are only just stepping up a gear. In October, the UK and Norway agreed to look into construction of what would be the world's longest under-sea power cable between the two countries. Then, in December, nine European countries agreed to develop an offshore wind energy grid in the North and Irish seas. The UK, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland have signed up for the North Seas Countries' Offshore Grid Initiative, the first aim of which is to devise a strategic work plan to be fixed in a memorandum of understanding in late 2010.

While the UK's offshore wind programme is unlikely to be stopped, controversy over the cost continues to surround the sector. Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction and engineering company and part of FOSG, said in a report published in March, that UK offshore wind would cost around £0.15-0.21/kWh ($0.23-0.32/kWh), compared with just £0.06-£0.08/KWh for nuclear power, including waste disposal and decommissioning. Both calculations exclude transmission costs, given the uncertainties over how that would be costed for offshore wind, but do include plant longevity and construction scheduling, as well as fuel, carbon emissions, operation and maintenance costs.

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