Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A brave new EU-MENA supergrid

The Desertec Industrial Initiative, based in Germany, is all about ambitious plans for linking renewable energy projects across the EU, Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA) region via a supergrid, to their mutual advantage. It says it can be done by 2050 and in a new report lays out what it might mean.  What is very striking about their analysis are the assumptions about the huge growth in energy demand in the ME and NA regions, and the scale of the renewable resources that is available there, much more  than  in the EU. 

They say that Turkey and Egypt will have the largest population and highest power demand in the MENA region in 2050 but also that, due to high per capita consumption, Saudi Arabia will be of a similar size in terms of power demand. ‘These three countries, together with Jordan and Syria, make up about a third of total EUMENA demand – as much as the four largest EU economies Germany, France, the UK and Italy together’.

They go on  ‘Due to the high demand in the Middle East and Egypt, most of the desert power produced there will be consumed locally’ and ,  since ‘unlike most of the major economies in the center of Europe, the region enjoys good solar and wind conditions’ they will not need imports.  However  ‘given their relatively small populations and abundant renewables resources, the Maghreb and Libya export large quantities of power to Europe’. They will be what Desertec calls ‘super producers’ while most of the rest are importers –countries with large demand but relatively few renewable resources. e.g. Germany, Italy, France and Turkey.  But there are some in between, i.e. countries with reasonable renewable resources, who will  need balancing top-ups. Examples quoted are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Spain, the UK and Denmark.

The Desertec 2050 report argues that the ‘balancer’ countries  ‘build just as much renewables capacity as is economic to cover most of their domestic load. Covering the remaining minor share of the load with domestic renewables becomes less economical, since curtailment of excess energy would occur. Consequently, these countries import power when needed and export it when their production exceeds domestic demand. They thereby avoid building the final segment of domestic renewables, which would make the sustainable power system more expensive due to high curtailment’.

Not everyone will agree with that analysis, or therefore the need for some EU countries to import perhaps 20% of their power from the south, while still using some gas, as  Desertec sees  importers as doing . ‘Since gas, and thereby carbon emissions, are allocated under a common cap to where they are needed most, the countries with limited renewables can use more gas than in an isolated system.’

This sounds dangerously like special pleading by Germany to be allowed to continue to use gas!   However,  the Desertec  report says that  it will all balance out equitably: ‘While super producers, balancers and importers profit from system integration in a different way, they all benefit from being part of a large sustainable power system. At the same time, their complementary roles lead to a situation of mutual reliance, in which no one country is dependent on another but instead each country is reliant on the system as a whole’.

Well maybe, but I can see plenty of potential for conflict, and certainly a need for a lot of detailed negotiations. It could make the current battles over the euro and national debts look easy! It certainly does open up a new geopolitical perspective, based on sharing renewable energy resources to mutual gain.

In reality though this wont be cooperative sharing, but  would be driven by market forces and the  interests of the  big investors in what after all will be a huge project.  Can it be set up to avoid market power becoming monopolised?   Should competition be restrained or increased? Could the supergrid be run as common service? 

There are plenty of political issues to get sorted before it’s too late; unless that is you think the whole idea should be opposed.  Certainly some environmentalists do not like large scale centralised systems- and would prefer the emphasis to be on the local scale. However, the big and the small are not really in conflict technologically- they could in fact be mutually reinforcing, enabling variable local supplies to feed into and be balanced by wider grid links. In essence it’s like the internet- a grid system serving a range of  decentral nodes.   But there could be conflicts over funding- big projects may attract big money to the detriment of small projects. That would be tragic since we need to develop renewables fully at both scales.

What happens next? Most likely the supergrid will emerge piecemeal, with a few links here and there, between the UK and the continent and within the EU (see my earlier Blog) and possibly across the Med, with no central plan or agreement.   A bit like how national electricity supply systems in the UK and elsewhere first emerged. That could be chaotic and wasteful. But where is the central authority to impose rational plan?  Not the EU/EC surely!

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