A New European Supergrid for Renewable Energy

high tension power linesPerhaps the largest bane of renewable energy is its intermittent nature that fails to provide a predictable, steady flow of “baseload” power to the grid. After all, the sun is not always shining; the wind is not always blowing; waves are not always crashing—but how often are all sources weak at the same time? European countries are embarking on a renewable energy master grid that will pair different technologies in different environments to help mitigate the natural ebb and flow of any one source.

According to an article in the Guardian, nine governments are involved in planning a €30 billion ($43.5 billion) network of high voltage, direct current cable that will connect the renewable power sources indigenous to their respective climates. The players include Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland and the UK. Together they can collectively utilize energy from solar, wave generation, tidal, wind, geothermal and hydro-electric.

More green enthusiasts are coming to the realization that creating renewable energy sources and plugging them into the grid is an incomplete solution. All too often, the intermittent nature of wind and solar power cause utility companies to count on an embarrassingly low percentage of total capacity for their estimates. According to an article on energy blog MasterResource, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (our country’s largest producer of wind power) counts on only 8.7 percent of wind nameplate capacity as dependable capacity at hours of peak demand.

This means that back-up power, most often natural gas or coal, is running simultaneously in the event that the renewables cannot meet supply. The result is that real reduction in carbon emissions are much smaller than the amount of clean grid capacity that is added. However, steps can be taken to address this issue that make renewable energy a better investment and more reliable.

Set to commence by this coming autumn, the grid stretch beneath the North Sea will serve as a boon to the European Union’s goals of getting 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2020. Not only does the combination of power sources raise the likelihood of a more steady flow of clean energy, but Norway’s large supply of hydro-electric facilities can provide 30GW of energy storage to further fortify the system’s reliability. When the grid is producing a power in excess it can be used to pump water back to the high side of a dam to be released when generation wanes.

As an international infrastructure investment, the undertaking will likely generate thousands of jobs along with further ratifying other renewable energy projects in the region including the vast expansion planned in off-shore wind energy.

Opportunity does not end with the completion of the project. Once the grid is in place it can be a tool continuously utilized and expanded to accommodate more capacity and more. Theoretically, the system could be used to further link efficiency to consumers system on smaller scales. An army of smart meters could be combined with the appliances, cars and users of individual homes to help encourage conservation and balance grid load throughout the course of a day. The project also begs the question whether a similar project could eventually take shape in the Mediterranean that could pair France with countries like Spain and its copious supply of wind turbines or future solar projects in the northern portion of Africa. Much like its coveted web of high speed rail, Europe may once again be trailblazing the way in establishing an infrastructural base that can pave the way for a more efficient culture that will pay future dividends on their investment.

One of the greatest accolades of the project is that it functioning as another step taken towards the advantage of technological planning to learn from natural examples. Clearly, the combination and interconnection of components draws a parallel to the construction of an ecosystem: a community of organisms and their environment that operate in stasis. The efforts emulate what can be called an industrial ecology, similar to the famous city of Kalundborg, Demark.

As is the focus of this blog, focusing on the interconnections between sources, options and occurrences allows for the discovery of efficiencies and opportunities that lead the way to the balance we have been so far from attaining. From our governments, to our businesses to even our homes; all of these systems can gain insight from emulating ecological scenarios. The more of these models that can be built and proven, the more they can approach a time where they represent a new standard.

Photo Credit: Center For American Progress