Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Energy Supergrid for Europe Faces Big Obstacles
Advocates of renewable energy say an electricity supergrid could enhance the clean-power industry by connecting power sources like wind farms in Scotland and solar arrays in Spain or North Africa to the population centers of Europe.

The technical arguments for a significantly expanded and upgraded power network in Europe are clear, they say. Yet the political, regulatory and economic obstacles are formidable.

... Doug Parr, chief scientist at the British arm of Greenpeace [noted]... “it’s not garnering political weight and support”...

With its windy weather, Britain could be a big beneficiary of better international power connections....

Britain is working ... to negotiate the North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative, a planned network of underwater cables that would connect offshore wind farms and other power sources to nearby countries.

The project, likely to take decades, is seen as a potential building block for a broader European grid....

Some cross-border power connections exist, but many European countries still produce and supply most of their own electricity.... Experts say a richer cross-border network will reduce power prices for consumers and make supplies more secure by promoting competition and distributing surplus production more efficiently.

Renewable power advocates say improved connections are essential for making sources like wind and solar practical on a large scale. Potential energy-producing areas, like the windy coasts of Scotland and Ireland and the deserts of North Africa, are often far from larger cities with their power-hungry consumers.

Broad networks could also help ease one of renewable energy’s biggest problems: intermittency. When the wind drops in Britain, it may still be strong in Germany, or the sun may be shining in Tunisia....

The Energy and Climate Change Committee of Britain’s main parliamentary chamber, the House of Commons, said in a report in September that a drastically improved grid would be crucial for the viability of the country’s plans for significant investment in offshore wind power.
But the report listed several caveats about the development of a Europe-wide grid, saying the cost would probably be high and the challenge of coordinating national energy regulations would be daunting.
The decades-long time frame for investing in energy infrastructure inevitably contrasted with the shorter-term focus of politicians.

Because energy is a heavily regulated sector, one of the biggest obstacles to building a supergrid is the long negotiations required to bridge differences among individual countries’ rules.

Budget woes, too, may limit the availability of investment from Brussels and national capitals.

Still, some advocates said poor economic conditions could actually make it easier to raise private financing.

“There are pension funds and many investors looking for safe returns,” Julian Scola, spokesman for the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels, said by phone. “Electricity infrastructure, which is a regulated business with regulated returns, ought to and does provide very safe and very attractive investment.”
The estimated price tag varies widely; James Cox of Poyry, a Finnish engineering and management consulting firm, said a wide-reaching grid could cost 100 billion euros, or about $127 billion.  A study by Poyry in March said that better regional interconnections would only partially solve the intermittency problem because weather patterns could extend over large areas.... Over all, he said, more links made economic sense. But winning permission for transmission projects can be difficult....

The European Union wants to create a unified electricity market, and Brussels is debating a bill that would streamline permit-granting for power transmission and provide more than 9.1 billion euros.
New linkups are therefore likely to happen piecemeal.... Mr. Parr of Greenpeace U.K. said. “It could get very expensive if it’s not done right.”

By Beth Gardiner
The New York Times
January 16, 2012

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