Is A Wind-Powered “Supergrid” Right for Europe?


Just the other day, the British government announced major expansion plans to sprinkle the waters around the island with offshore wind farms. Some 7,000 turbines could be enough to provide the electricity for every UK home, the country’s energy secretary said, and could cover much of the country’s goal of supplying 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, in line with European Union targets.

If the country embraces wind energy whole-heartedly, the UK’s unprecedented embrace of wind might, by accident rather than by design, end up as the first phase of Gregor Czisch’s grand plan for Europe: a “supergrid” that would connect—and power—all of Europe with high-voltage direct-current links to numerous offshore wind farms.

Czisch, an energy systems expert at the University of Kassel, in Germany, has for years been suggesting that a new power network could transport large volumes of power from broadly dispersed generators to cover local resources shortages. The backbone of his plan is a disparate collection of wind farms, based on the assumption that wind is always blowing somewhere in Europe, if not in one’s own backyard. There would be other, smaller components, too, including well-placed hydropower.

A company called Airtricity, which develops wind farms and is promoting Czisch’s supergrid idea, estimates that it would cost 22.5 billion euros to install and connect the wind farms for this proposed grid, and, most surprisingly, it could cover all of Europe’s electricity needs. The electricity generated from those wind farms, they say, would easily compete with projected electricity prices from fossil fuels. The grid would literally stretch all the way across Europe, linking Finland and Iceland to Spain and possibly even Northern Africa. Because all the technology needed for the project already exists, Czisch estimates that the grid could be up and running within five years—meaning, basically, that all it would take is political will.

The supergrid idea has gotten some political attention, if not an outright endorsement. So is an interwoven, interdependent network of offshore wind farms the way for Europe to go? The project has its problems: for one, running long transmission lines inevitably leads to losses of electricity, so powering Britain with electricity generated near Morocco might not make much sense. Secondly, this would involve unprecedented international cooperation on the hot-button issue of energy security—a formidable obstacle, at best. Lastly, the price tag is obviously too optimistic. But given that the stakes are high and getting higher, a coordinated, affordable plan for a large-scale switch to renewable energy sources is definitely appealing, and may even be necessary someday soon.

For more on the supergrid, check out this UPI story.

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Comments

It is right to say "running long transmission lines inevitably leads to losses of electricity" but wrong to say "so powering Britain with electricity generated near Morocco might not make much sense."

With HVDC transmission lines, losses are about 3% per 1000 km. In addition, there are conversion losses at each end which, taking both ends together, are about 1.5% to 2%. Since it is about 2000 km between Morocco and the UK, transmission losses would be less than 10%.

The TRANS-CSP report from the German Aerospace Center calculates that solar electricity from concentrating solar power plants in North Africa and the Middle East could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, ***including the cost of transmission***

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