Prime minister David Cameron last week pledged backing to link up green energy projects in Irish, North and Baltic Seas via a supergrid. But the question remains – how soon could it become a reality?
It is a seductive plan because it has the potential to overcome the pitfalls of renewable energy – namely intermittency and the inability to store electricity – by effectively balancing energy needs. For example, surplus energy produced by one country’s offshore wind farms could be transported to pump water through another’s hydro-electric power stations.
It would go a long way towards meeting European Union targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But it’s still just an idea, with major unanswered questions about funding and how it will be constructed.
“I think it will happen in a piecemeal fashion,” says Atkins head of offshore and transmission Paul Glendinning.
The technology is believed to be about five years away. However, there exist smaller scale subsea grid links already – there is a 2GW connection between England and France, and a 450MW connection from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Plans are afoot for one between the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.
But this is all small fry compared with the potential energy that could be harnessed in the North and Irish Seas. Crown Estates’ Round 3 programme alone is expected to see 30GW of energy capacity added to the system.
Industry group Friends of the Supergrid has been promoting a pan-European electricity grid to connect renewable energy projects. Its vision is not an extension of existing or planned point to point HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) interconnectors but a new grid which focuses on collecting renewable energy at nodes and distributing the energy to the best available market. Plans are gathering pace and each week there seems to be a big renewable electricity grid announcement.
“A full supergrid will need pan-European co-operation”
Only last week plans for a link between the UK and Norway, and a grid extension in the Netherlands to support offshore wind were announced.
But a full supergrid will need pan-European co-operation, which is still not in place.
“It would be terrific if [a pan European approach was in place] but it would have its difficulties,” says Glendinning. Each of the 27 member states will have their own views.
A holistic approach is necessary because investors will want to see which technologies have the best returns. However, that might not be for the greater good of the grid or indeed European Union (EU) policy.