Sunday, July 1, 2012

Supergrid: the UK makes a start

National Grid and Scottish Power Transmission have awarded a £1bn contract for first ever sub sea electricity link between Scotland and England. The 2,200MW High Voltage Direct Current  link will be a vital reinforcement- bringing energy from renewable sources in Scotland to the south and helping to meet 2020 renewable targets. It will run 420km between Hunterston in Ayrshire to the Wirral- the longest link of this capacity in the world. It should be fully operational by 2016.

There are already about 3 GW of interconnector links to France and the Netherlands, but nine more are either in construction, planning or subject to feasibility studies. The next to open, in autumn 2012, will be a link between the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Then there is a 1 GW Kent-Belgium link, planned for 2018 and maybe a 1.4 GW link to Norway, 900km, by 2019. Another would link England to Alderney, where very strong tides could produce large amounts of electricity, and then on to France.

Energy Minister Charles Hendry has also been negotiating with Iceland over the possibility of connecting the UK to its abundant geothermal energy, via a 1000 km plus undersea High Voltage Direct Current supergrid.. That may be some way off, but, with the other projects, a ‘supergrid’  network may be gradually taking shape- and it can link up to, and help balance, offshore wind farms in the North Sea. By 2020 there could be 18GW of offshore wind capacity in place, with more to follow. They will all need grid links.

Supergrid interconnectors are costly. The Britain-Netherland 240km link, which opened in 2011, cost £500m. But we have the best wind, wave and tidal resource in Europe, so we should be able to produces large amount of excess electricity and sell it abroad. More than offsetting the cost of the interconnector  and more than offsetting the need to occasionally have to import balancing power when UK wind is low.

The supergrid would eventually be EU wide, linking to the large hydro capacity in Norway and elsewhere, with the reservoirs acting as  stores for excess wind derived power,  and it may even possibly extended it to the large yet to be developed solar resource in North Africa. This wide geographical spread should ensure that power would be available even when the whole of Northern Europe is temporarily becalmed.  

Similar ideas have emerged elsewhere. The Japan Renewable Energy Foundation   and the Desertec Foundation have teamed to promote an Asian Supergrid that would connect the national grids of Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia and Russia. This could open up opportunities for renewable energy development in which the power produced could be moved to where it is needed most. So Japan, with fewer areas in which to build renewable projects, could benefit from wind power produced in placed like Inner Mongolia, where potential capacity far exceeds demand. There a have also been proposals for a major Concentrated Solar Power project in  the Gobi desert, which straddles China and Mongolia. Excess electricity (around 1GW) from the Gobitec project would be exported to urban centers in China, Japan, and South Korea via a new network of nearly 4,000 km of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. . 

There can obviously be problems with mega projects like this, as I have explored in a recent paper: .

Some have argued that it’s foolish to try to go  remote sources, and concentrate, and then transmit over long distances, energy that is naturally distributed everywhere.   It’s also argued that it  could degenerate into a neo-colonial resource grab, with poor areas being exploited by rich energy hungry countries, who might then not develop their own renewables  sources.  That clearly has to be resisted: the host country should have priority   access and only excess power exported.  And we have to avoid imported supergrid power being seen as alternative to locally produced power. We need all the types of renewable energy development, at all scales, for a sustainable future. But as far as the planet is concerned, it doesn’t matter where the energy projects are built as long as they avoid emissions, and in energy and carbon terms, it makes sense to go to where the resources are best. So we need to face up to the political problems and start to think outside of national boxes.  

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