Probing for Fluff in Europe’s Supergrids Vision

European renewable energy supergrid map Credit Wibke von FlemmingLast month the European Commission (EC) called for construction of regional power transmission grids that would ultimately merge into a supergrid distributing Mediterranean solar energy and offshore wind energy across Europe. Today, in MIT’s Technology Review, I test the political reality of sharing power across Europe (see “Europe Backs Supergrids”) and show that the EC just might pull it off.

Why be skeptical? Because for over a decade the EC has been pushing the liberalization of the European electricity market. Whereas, given the limited capacity for exchange of power between many European countries one could fairly question whether a ‘European market’ for electricity even exists.

Wind power developer Eddie O’Connor, for example, told me that his priority – building an offshore grid to connect tens of gigawatts of North Sea wind farms to be installed in the coming decade – would remain a dream so long as the European states and their politically powerful utilities control tranmission planning. “The utilities are the enemy,” says O’Connor, founder of wind developer Airtricity and CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power. “Even at this stage they’re still the enemy.”

What my report for TechReview shows, however, is that change is possible. The best example is a French-Spanish agreement this summer — under intense prodding from the EC — clearing the way for a much-needed second powerline across the Pyrenees. A special envoy appointed by the EC broke what had been a 15-year impasse complicated by local environmental concerns, Catalan fury, and diverging interests of the utilities involved. 

Even O’Connor is optimistic. He believes that new international institutions must be created to conjur up the supergrid Europe needs to carry renewable energy. But, says O’Connor, both are possible: “I believe the building of the supergrid is imminent.”  

Stay tuned for more on the EC’s energy envoys.

This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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