Rhein on Energy and Climate

In December 2008 the EU has decided onto providing at least 20 percent of its energy needs – the equivalent of 30 percent of its electricity consumption – supply from renewable sources by 2020 latest. To that end, it will need to generate about one third of its electricity from renewables.

This is anything but easy! At present, only 15 percent of In 2009 less than five percent of EU electricity is generated from wind, concentrated or photovoltaic solar or biomass renewables, most of it from hydro, wind power and biomass.

Contrary to fossil power plants renewable sources are available only far away from the big electricity consumption centres, in the North Sea and across the Mediterranean; and their supply is discontinuous due to nature’s vagaries.

The EU is therefore confronted with a “grid problem” of unprecedented technical, economic and financial dimensions. At the 2050 horizon, when essentially all its electricity will have to come from renewable or nuclear sources, it will have to build a high-voltage direct current super-grid, connecting European industrial and private consumers from huge off-shore wind parks in the North Sea and concentrated solar power plants in the Mediterranean including the Sahara. This combination will by the same token such a trans-European super-grid balance will help balancing out the sharp fluctuations of wind and solar power generation uneven supplies from wind and solar radiation.

Europe will start in the North Sea, and the UK will lead the movement. As the country possessing by far the biggest potential for off-shore wind (and wave power generation) in Europe it has a vital interest in developing and developing this potential and connecting the its wind-parks to both its domestic grid, the other North Sea coastal countries and the rest of Europe.

On January 8. 2010, the UK government has taken an important step by awarding licenses to several international consortia for the installation of some 6000 wind turbines with a total capacity of 32 GW in nine areas stretching as far as 200 km off the coast and reaching depths of up to 60 m. With an estimated investment of € 100 billion it will be the biggest and most demanding off-shore wind power programme ever realised anywhere on earth.

In parallel, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France and Sweden are pursuing similar programmes, but at a tiny scale, due to their small sea areas.

The programme will take at least 10 years to complete. It will confront the engineering industry with unprecedented challenges, requiring new technologies for foundations, assembling, servicing and, last not least, transmitting the electricity to the consumers.

To make sense, the wind parks need to be connected to the consumption centres in the UK and continental Europe. It is therefore normal for the countries around the North Sea – and the EU to address the transmission of electricity in a comprehensive and long-term perspective.

At the end of January, the nine countries around the North Sea countries, including Luxembourg and Sweden will meet at the end of January 2010 to define the outlines of the North Sea super-grid, the the details to will be agreed upon later upon before in the end of the year.

Norway will have to become an be an indispensable partner: in this group. thanks to its It disposes of 30 GW hydro power capacities, only two thirds of many hydro-power stations it which are already exploited. Wind and hydro electricity form an ideal alliance: When there is an excess of wind power it will be pumped up into the dams in view of supplying hydro-power in lull periods.

Thanks to this combination, plus the wide geographic coverage of the wind farms, it will be possible to cope with fluctuating winds, the major handicap of wind power.disposes the biggest electricity storage facilities in northern Europe. Wind generators will sell their excess electricity to Norwegian hydro-power companies be stored in their dams for transmittal to regional clients in lull periods.

Building these interconnections across the North Sea – and the Baltic – over several over hundreds of kilometres and linking them to the continental network still in the making will be a daunting challenge in terms of technology, financing, ownership and profitability.

The 16 cm diameter cables must, of course, be, be water-proof and have a a longevity longevity of up to 40 years and more.. The system must include inter-connectors for adding more wind or wave parks in the future.

The system will need to be installed in phases, the first one to be completed around 2020. The Its financing needs, which might easily exceed € 20 billion, should to be shared between the utilitiesthe operators, possibly with the participation of and governments. Jointly theThe utilities y might should ideally establish a consortium for running owning and operating the grid. This would be an elegant way of separating ownership of generation from transmission, which still waits for a solution on land.

The profitability will be next to impossible to calculate. it will depends on many parameters, above all the installation cost per km of installed cable and the transmission charges to be agreed upon..

In any event, the EU has not much choice. In view of enhancing its energy security and reducing C02 emissions by more than 80 percent until the middle of the century, off-shore wind energy will be indispensable. This being said, the North Sea wind potential, estimated at some 100 GW, will be able to cover no more than 10 percent of EU electricity demand!

But the progressive harvesting of the North Sea wind potential and its connection to a European-wide grid will give the EU a precious lead in what will become a standard technology in the coming decades in all countries with extensive coastal areas with water depths up to 60 meters, like China, USA, Canada or Brazil. Above all it will send a clear signal to the rest of the world that the EU is serious about implementing its ambitious emission targets for 2020.

Brussels, 10.01.10 Eberhard Rhein

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  1. Oh please, anything but nuclear – a long-term disaster fror humanity.

    What about R&D spending on fuel cell research. There’s tremendous work being done on it at Warsaw University of Technology by people such as Jaroslaw Milewski, whom I had the honour of meeting recently.

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