Grids, grids, my kingdom for the Supergrid
Once off transition to sustainability
This world of ours is on a once off transition to sustainability. Over three centuries its population will have moved from 600 million to 9.2 billion. There is no rule stipulating that the resources which were adequate in the past will be sufficient for the future. There are many basic raw materials whose abundance cannot be assumed for the future. Oil is depleting rather rapidly, water is becoming scarce in many regions. Metals such as platinum, lithium and phosphorous are scarce.
Everything that can be recycled will have to be. Greater efficiency and waste reduction will become the norm. The design of cities, factories and houses will include sustainability as their top design criterion.
However, with enough energy all other issues become manageable.
Wind as a power source
In Europe we have proven that wind energy works as both a decentralised and as a mainstream source of electricity, although wind as a decentralised power is almost finished on mainland Europe: many of the high wind speed sites have been built on, population density makes further consenting difficult, and spare capacity on grids has been used up.
Mainstream wind as a large component of the complete electricity solution needs a new set of grids to realise its potential. In Europe it is not possible to build large quantities of wind power onshore. We have to go offshore to do this. The wind offshore is almost unlimited at these northern latitudes.
In fact, when wind is seen and understood as a continental resource, it reaches its true potential as a bulk power source.
Northern European wind happens because of pressure differences in the atmosphere. Weather systems are characterised by areas of high or low pressure. Wind flows along the lines of pressure which circulate around high or low pressure centres.
As a single power source the output from a wind farm is quite variable. However, if all of these single power sources are joined by means of a grid, over thousands of kilometres, then the fluctuations balance out. Wind energy begins to resemble a very large nuclear power station (without the radioactive by-products). In fact, it resembles an ultra large nuclear power station insofar as it operates at a nearly constant load.
If such a scenario is to become reality, then we need to think the grid solution out from scratch.
Current grids are grossly inadequate for trading electricity across national boundaries: 95 per cent of all electricity is consumed in the country in which it is generated. So whereas we move food, minerals, people, fuel, money freely across borders, in a freely traded manner which benefits all customers, we make and consume our electricity domestically.
The fastest moving product has been the slowest to be brought to international trade.
Europe will be moving great quantities of electricity from where it is generated, largely at sea from wind and in Southern Europe and the Sahara from the sun. Generation will be spread over thousands of kilometres and most bulk transport of electricity will be by cable underground. We have a method of doing this, and that is by high voltage DC. It has been tried and trusted over the past 50 years.
What no one has done yet is to build a high reliability meshed grid in DC (all current grids are built in alternating current [AC]). The goal for the Supergrid has to be to replicate and to give the same degree of reliability in DC as currently exists in AC.
The benefits of the Supergrid are:
• Europe becomes energy self-sufficient
• Our electricity becomes completely decarbonised
• We tap into a free fuel source
• We develop and deploy new technology, for a large market and which can be sold around the world
• Millions of jobs are created , from the manufacture and erection of wind farms and solar plant to the manufacture and installation of the new DC grids
• We trade electricity across Europe
• The technology Europe develops will have a world market, in China, the US, Africa, in the Arabian peninsula and in the Far East. Export orders will be a multiple of European demand.
The Supergrid was strongly advocated by the last EU commissioner for energy, Andris Piebalgs. Ten countries have come together to develop policy options for the construction of the Supergrid. A grouping of 12 of the largest European companies under the collective title “Friends of the Supergrid” (FOSG) has been assembled http://www.ijonline.com/GenV2/Secured/DisplayArticle.aspx?ArticleID=61223 . The objective is to collate their pooled wisdom so as to accelerate the Supergrid build process. The FOSG will intervene in the policy formulation debate so as to offer the optimum technological solutions, propose how technical standards could be set and policed, with suggestions as to how the Supergrid could be best owned, operated, paid for and built quickly.
My own feeling is that the Supergrid will be seen as an absolute necessity by the British and German governments as they seek to meet their 2020 renewable obligations. Certainly the British government’s proposals for Offshore Transmission Owners (OFTO)with their unfair risk sharing and stranded assets (only 40 per cent of the OFTO cables will be used on average over time) that require an on-land strengthening of the grid should be relooked at using the Supergrid as the alternative.
Next week on this column I will look at the cost of building out the Supergrid.