A short version of this article was published in the The Independent on Sunday, 14 June 2009
Europe could build an electricity supply based entirely on renewable energy by 2030, according to scientists making a presentation at the House of Commons this week. MPs will hear that an electricity ‘supergrid’ across Europe and North Africa could solve the problem of the intermittency of wind turbines and solar power, and dispense with the need for nuclear and ‘clean coal’ power stations altogether.
The supergrid would stretch from Britain to Kazakstan, and Scandinavia to Morocco, and transport huge amounts of renewable power back and forth to marry supply with demand. The scheme’s backers say the geographical scale of the grid would solve intermittency because, over such a large area, the wind is always blowing somewhere, and sunrise and sunset come at different times, meaning the variations in renewable generation will even out to create a dependable supply.
MPs will hear from Dr Gregor Czisch, a German energy consultant, who has devised a computer model to show how such a system could satisfy all electricity demand within the supergrid area from a variety of renewable sources. The model is based on historical weather and demand data, and designed to find the cheapest possible electricity supply based wholly on renewables.
Almost three quarters of the energy comes from onshore wind, with powerful summer winds in Morocco and Egypt complementing winter gales around the North Sea. Most of the rest comes from existing hydro power in the Nordic countries and the Alps, which is held in reserve for when the other sources fail to match demand. There are also small contributions from wood-burning power stations, and solar power from the Sahara.
Building the supergrid would require tens of thousands of kilometers of overhead lines and undersea cables, using high voltage direct current (HVDC), which is far more efficient than existing AC grids for transporting power over long distances.
The entire system would cost more than €1.5 trillion over 20 years. €128 billion would go on the supergrid itself – the HVDC lines and equipment – suggesting a boom for power engineering firms such as Siemens and ABB, and around €1.4 trillion on renewable generating capacity.
However Dr Czisch points out this is only a fraction of the investment planned in fossil fueled power stations over the same period, which his scheme would render unnecessary. Overall he calculates that supergrid would deliver power for less than €0.047 per kilowatt hour, roughly the price of German wholesale electricity when the study was completed. The real obstacles are neither economic nor technical, he says: “My work shows there is nothing to stop us going completely renewable. It is just a question of political will”
Alan Whitehead MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Renewable And Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG), says the supergrid could deliver an almost entirely decarbonized electricity supply without the need for nuclear or unproven ‘clean coal’ power stations, and probably far sooner. “The potential is staggering”, he says.
Supporters claim the supergrid could be achieved in 20 years or less. Dave Andrews of the Claverton Group, the independent association of energy industry professionals organizing the parliamentary event, points out that the British national grid was built in a decade from 1925, slashing electricity prices by a quarter.
Elements of a potential supergrid are already beginning to be developed. Denmark, Sweden and Germany are studying the possibility of a three-pronged HVDC link to connect their national grids via wind farms in the Baltic, while the British company Mainstream Renewables has similar plans for the North Sea.