While nobody disputes that the Smart Grid will hugely enhance the supply and security of energy, many wonder if Europe can establish a joined-up smart approach to meet its self-imposed deadlines

Almost every week a new piece of Smart Grid research is published that suggests that if an eye-wateringly large sum of money is spent on smart initiatives, an even more eye-wateringly huge amount of cash will in turn be saved.

A recent report by consultancy The Future Laboratory and Oracle Utilities claims that the successful deployment of Smart Grids could save the European Union €52 billion ($71 billion) annually.

Another, from the European Climate Foundation, estimates that €68 billion ($93 billion) will need to be spent on Smart Grid work between 2020 and 2030 to bring online the extra capacity needed for the EU to meet its decarbonisation targets.

Powering up: will Europe be ready to press the power button on its Smart Grids in time to accommodate the extra capacity from renewables in 2020?

Why are these two studies focused on Europe? Because there is a perception that while North America has made great strides in smart schemes, Europe has been left in the starting blocks.

Hans Martens, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, sees Smart Grid technologies as essential to Europe: “It is one of the most important measures because it can help achieve goals without changing lifestyles, and sometimes with relatively small investments. Using ICT [information and communications technology] also creates a win-win situation: we reduce the use of carbon based fuel, we reduce emissions, we stimulate growth, jobs and innovation and we save money.”

With many European countries’ grids creaking under the energy demands of the 21st century, many argue the Smart Grid is not a ‘win-win’ situation, but a ‘must-win’ scenario.

“We occasionally encounter assets that date back to the beginning of the last century,” says Paul Smith, operations manager of the UK’s Energy Networks Association. “The rollout of smart meters and Smart Grid technologies represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address many legacy issues.”

Earlier this month at the European Innovative Smart Grid Technologies conference in Manchester, Mark Osborne, of UK network operator National Grid said: “The more volatile the network becomes, the harder it is to keep the network within its limits.”

At the same conference, however, there was widespread consensus that Europe was ready, willing and able to tackle the Smart Grid.

Jayant Kumar, director of the Smart Grid programme at Alstom Grid, said: “The business case has been validated and does exist. There are leading examples today where the systems are being implemented.”

Yet there was also recognition of the sheer scale of the task ahead. National Grid’s Osborne said: “There are massive reinforcements necessary to bring offshore wind energy onshore. A lot of the new renewable generation is going to be intermittent – that is a big problem.”

And addressing even that particular offshore problem is proving troublesome. Last month transmission system operator TenneT told the German government that its programme to connect offshore wind farms to the grid had reached saturation point in terms of “human, material and financial resources”.

TenneT wrote to the German Federal Chancellery, the Federal Ministry of Economics and the Federal Environment Ministry to warn them that “the construction of connecting cables for offshore wind farms in the North Sea is no longer advisable and possible under current conditions and at the current speed”.

Meanwhile, Bastian Fischer of Oracle Utilities says the Smart Grid needs to be “planned, rolled out and installed” by 2020 and adds: “We are running a fast-paced race to meet that deadline.”

If Europe is going to cross the finish line of that particular race, all members of its Smart Grid relay team – from utilities and network operators to technology companies – need to at least be running in the same direction and at the same pace.

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