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Super Grid: the answer to Europe's energy needs?

Mar 5, 2009 - Thijs Westerbeek - Radio Netherlands Worldwide

The European Commission wants to build powerful electricity transmission networks connecting the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Baltic region. This would help bring more wind and water energy onto the market.

The biggest problem with wind power is its unpredictability. When the wind does not blow there is no electricity and when it blows too hard you cannot use all of it. A new European network of underground and undersea high-voltage direct current cables (HVDC), which would be longer and more powerful than the current overhead lines, could offer a solution. The problem caused by fluctuations in the supply of wind-generated energy will only increase in the coming years.

WindmillsEconomic crisis aside, the supply of oil is not infinite; sooner or later, we're going to run out of oil and wind energy - particularly wind parks at sea - will inevitably play a greater role. The European high-voltage transmission grid could transport electricity to wherever it is needed: electricity generated by strong winds blowing in Spain's Bay of Biscay could be transported to Italy or Austria.

Super Grid
A large-scale system for transmitting electricity is the only way to stabilise the fluctuating supply of solar and wind energy and guarantee an adequate supply of electricity at all times. The renowned British green energy guru James Woudhuysen put it like this:

"We have to think big about it. In fact what they are, as sources of energy, is astronomical. They harness the power of the sun and the wind to generate very large flows of energy, rather than stocks of energy like fossil fuels. But these flows only exist on a very large and astronomical scale. So you just can't get very far with a little windmill or solar panel above your house. You have to cover deserts with solar panels and the same goes for wind and water power; you have to think big because that's what the technicalities of those kinds of energy sources are all about."

Energy experts at Germany's University of Kassel really understand the 'big idea'. Energy systems modelling expert Professor Gregor Czisch and his colleagues say Europe could satisfy all of its energy needs by transforming its existing electricity grinds into one clean Super Grid that uses only renewable sources. Seventy percent of electricity needs would come from wind energy, with hydroelectric power stations in Scandinavia supplying the necessary back-up capacity.

Professor Wil Kling, an energy transition expert at the Eindhoven University of Technology, is studying ways of integrating wind energy into the mainstream power network. He is not as optimistic as his colleagues in Kassel, but he does believe it will be possible to generate around 50 percent of Europe's energy needs from greener sources. Professor Kling is also positive about the economic feasibility of his proposed network. It will cost billions to construct since it involves HVDC cables capable of transporting an, until recently unimaginable, capacity. However, this also means it will be all the more profitable. The country that receives the power pays for the imported electricity. Professor Kling knows it will work because an undersea HVDC cable laid between the Netherlands and Norway a few years ago will start generating profits very soon:

"The Norned line between the Netherlands and Norway has generated more than 100 million euros in the space of a year. If the trend continues, then it will have paid for itself within a few years. From an economic point of view, it was a very sound investment".

And that is certainly true when one considers that the Norned line cost just 400 million euros.

Wind parks
The whole idea of a Super Grid does of course raise the question of whether it makes sense to construct large-scale offshore wind parks before the Super Grid is available. However, Han van den Berkel, director of Darwind, an offshore wind-turbine factory, is very clear about it:

"I want both. The sea is enormous; there are numerous possibilities to generate energy at numerous locations. And that has to happen; in order to make the Super Grid effective you also need offshore wind parks".

European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has already taken the first steps towards realising the Super Grid. He is due to hold talks with Germany, Sweden and Denmark about coupling the fluctuating supply of German and Danish wind-generated energy with Swedish hydroelectric power plants.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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