Saturday, April 3, 2010

Renewable energy and the supergrid

Renewables are moving ahead rapidly around the world – despite the best efforts of those with vested interests in the old energy system. It no longer seems fanciful to talk of getting at least 50% of global energy from renewables source by 2050, or earlier: see http://www.energywatchgroup.org/Renewables.52+M5d637b1e38d.0.html.

The next phase will see some major changes as the developers gets to grips with some of the problems of renewables. One of these is that many of the sources are variable- the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the winds vary. One solution to that is to link up projects over a wide geographical area using long distance power transmission grids. It’s usually windy somewhere in Europe, so wind farms there can help balance shortfalls elsewhere, while hydro plant reservoirs can be used to store excess power from the wind and other renewable sources- pumping water up hill ready to be used for electricity generation when needed some where else on the grid net. The wider spread the geographical distribution, the more effective is the balancing of local variations.

Long distance transmission, using High Voltage Direct Current grids, can avoid the large power losses associated with standard AC grids- you might only get 2% losses over 1000 km instead of 10%. That means the grid could reach as far as North Africa- were there is a huge solar resource. Already there a plans and projects underway for giant Concentrating Solar Power (‘CSP’) mirror arrays, and in the decades ahead CSP solar could well rival wind power as a major source. Projects are already underway or planned in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and elsewhere. See http://www.desertec.org

The renewable resource

For the moment however wind is the dominant renewable and the resource especially offshore, is vast. Perhaps 150 Giga Watts (GW) of generating capacity could be installed in the north sea and linked up to the supergrid. There is already 65 GW of wind capacity on land around the EU, and that too will grow. To put it in perspective the UK has around 75 GW of total generation capacity.

The EU is supporting a supergid programme initially focused on the North Sea and on offshore wind, but it is likely to grow across Europe. But focusing just on the EU may be suboptimal. The really big on-land wind resources are further east. For example Kazakhstan is estimated to have a wind potential of 210 GW as well as huge hydro and geothermal resources. Turkey similarly. And Turkmenistan also has a large wind resources. In addition, there are also major wind potentials in W. Siberia (350GW) Mauritania (105 GW), and Southern Morocco, (120 GW) . See http://www.iset.uni-kassel.de/abt/w3-w/projekte/ LowCostEuropElSup_revised_for_AKE_2006.pdf

It could be that in the decades ahead supergrid links will be made to link to some of these, as well as the CSP solar projects in the desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East. In which case a whole new energy geopolitics would emerge - no longer determined by oil and gas, which by then in any case will be seriously depleted.

Politics

Clearly the supergrid would take a major effort politically, not least in terms of getting way-leave across national boundaries and negotiating power management and system control arrangements. It would also open up some new geopolitical issues. The EU would still be partly reliant on imported energy, and there is the risk that EU companies would simply grab land for development.

Clearly there would have to be fair trade arrangements to avoid exploitation, and also protection for the EU against being cut off. But with a dedicated grid system linked to the EU, unlike with oil, which can be stored and shipped elsewhere, it is hard to see how there would be much opportunity for supply blackmail or major price speculation. Moreover, the EU would also presumably be trading in excess wind and hydro-power from the north, so it could be a two way, hopefully co-operative, arrangement.

There will of course be a need for negotiation over prices. That has already been an issue in relation to the export of excess power from Danish wind projects and the import, during low wind periods, of hydro power from Sweden and Norway. It is vital to capture the advantage of being able to balance variable renewable supplies across wide areas, and conventional competitive market trading may not reflect this. One way to avoid price conflicts might be to develop an EU-based Cross-Feed Tariff, possibly also providing extra support for a suppliers able to offer stored renewable power.

There is the risk that a supergrid programme, utilizing energy from remote sources, might provide EU countries with an excuse for not dealing with their emission problems and developing their own renewable sources. But the imports would only meet part of the EU's requirement for electricity, the bulk would still come from local/national renewable sources.

There are of course political issues flowing from the fact that one part of the EU’s current enthusiasm for such a system is because it could help enhance competition in a pan-EU energy market. This might undermine some of the regional market control enjoyed by the current main energy players. Some of the large utility companies and some countries do seem less than enthusiastic about the single energy market, and also the supergrid. An additional issue might be that the EC and national governments may well look to the large energy companies for at least some of the funding for such a programme, something that the companies may wish to avoid.

Conclusions

This review has focused so far on projects in and near the EU, but clearly the concepts have wider implications. It is interesting for example to see that the USA has plans for new grid systems to link up with renewables, with talk of an ‘Interstate Transmission Super Highway’. China too is building supergrid links to large but remote hydro projects.
With large inputs from wind, CSP and from other renewables like wave and tidal power linked in, we could see a move to major supergrids around the world, fed and balanced by a range of sources from a range locations. If we are to respond effectively to climate change and improve energy security, this looks like at least part of way ahead- as long as we can avoid exploitation of local populations. If a fair balance can be achieved the prize could be a new geopolitics- no longer would Middle East oil or Russian gas dominate EU energy policy. Instead some of the relatively poor countries on or near the periphery of the EU could benefit.

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