Attaining UN emissions targets is no mean feat, and the Copenhagen conference is unlikely to make it any easier. With world energy demands on the up, and climate change looking inevitable, an increase in renewable energy use is essential. But if renewable energy is to become a large-scale reality, then it needs a large-scale infrastructure to support it … enter the Supergrid.
By its very nature renewable energy tends to be unreliable but, if a transmission grid covers a large enough area, it is hoped the fluctuations will cancel each other out. The bigger the grid, the more likely it is the wind will blow in one part and the sun shine in another. A European Supergrid would be able to transport renewable energy across the continent, from as far as off-shore wind farms on the Baltic coast to the solar-power plants in the Mediterranean. There are also suggestions being made to link up with North Africa so that Europe can benefit from imported concentrating solar power. The DESERTEC Foundation is planning to go one step further by bringing the Middle East into the Supergrid. The not-for-profit organisation believes that such a network could meet around 15% of Europe’s electricity requirements, as well as providing a substantial share of power for the producer countries.
Not surprisingly, a Supergrid would require a great deal of planning and money. Researchers estimate the cost of installing concentrating solar power in North Africa and transmitting it to Europe at somewhere in the region of 18m euros. This is roughly the same as the ‘official’ cost of the Three Gorges Project in China.
The creation of a Supergrid must overcome both physical and market challenges. Electricity markets are almost as culturally diverse as cuisine, and harmonisation is needed on a range of issues. In particular, fair methods are needed to compensate for the transmission of third-party power across networks and for sharing the costs of international investment. Already there are cooperative alliances forming and Nordel – an association of transmission operators in Norway, Sweden, Finland and eastern Denmark – have been planning a grid to cover their four member countries for some time. This summer they became part of the newly created European Network of Transmission Operators. This brings together 34 countries with the aim of integrating the European electricity market and developing renewable energy generation, perhaps with the aim of readying Europe for a Supergrid.
In addition to the market, there is the physical challenge of constructing an integrated system with the capability of conducting electricity over long distances. Simply connecting existing national grids will not work. A fully integrated system is needed, with lines and cables that can transmit large amounts of electricity across great distances. The technology of high-voltage direct current transmission (HVDC) is developing rapidly. Not only is this capable of transporting bulk power but it is more compact, more efficient and easier to control. Advanced cable technology is also improving, and cables can now operate at higher temperatures and have the potential to be smaller and lighter.
However, there is another technology that could play an even larger role in the development of the Supergrid. Matching supply and demand is always an issue but, with advanced telecommunications and real-time measurement systems, this could be a thing of the past. There are already several initiatives at regional and city level to ‘smarten’ up electricity supply. These coordinate and intelligently control generation to guarantee that supply and demand match at a given time. On a super-scale, the advantages could be even greater and the technology more impressive. The Supergrid would become Supersmart, and it would also need smart skills to operate and maintain it.
Athough there is a long way to go in the development of technology and human resources, a significant barrier could be public opposition to new transmission lines. The big question is whether lines and cables should be overhead or underground. Underground cables are more aesthetically pleasing but they are also more expensive and difficult to service, which could be important in the grid’s formative years. It may be that, in the case of the Supersmart grid, we have to keep in mind the old adage that ‘beauty is only skin deep’.