Are Friends electric? Europe’s offshore supergrid aspirations

BY TIM PROBERT

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The Friends of the Supergrid is a lobby group that wants to build an offshore transmission network in Europe;s North Sea. But would it be money well spent?

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This month saw the official launch of the Friends of the Supergrid, a collection of ten transmission and distribution companies including Siemens, Areva T&D and Prysmian, who want to build an offshore ‘supergrid’ in Europe’s North Sea.

A ‘supergrid’ would consist of offshore converter stations or ‘supernodes’ to interconnect North Sea wind farms and route the power to the mainland and is separate from subsea high voltage direct current (HVDC) European interconnections such as NorNed, BritNed, BelBrit and so on.

The Friends are a lobby group, which will soon appoint a chief executive and set up an office in Brussels, to work on overcoming the technical, financial and regulatory obstacles facing a plan to build an offshore European ‘supergrid’, with a particular focus on connecting wind farms in the North Sea between the UK, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Membership of the Friends will be kept to a maximum of 20 companies and aims to have both an industrial and geographic cross-section, although utilities are not expected to join the group.

It is easy to be cynical about the Friends, who would be direct beneficiaries of the tens of billions of Euro that a ‘supergrid’ would cost. The Friends counter sceptics by stating they want to build a ‘supergrid’ “for their grandchildren”. No doubt this is true, but that is surely not the only reason.

Yet the Friends say that a ‘supergrid’ is no less than the “most important infrastructure project for the next 50 years” because Europe will fail in its aspiration to build 1500 GW of wind and solar power by 2050 unless it is built.

Eddie O’Connor, CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, which is also a Friend, says a ‘supergrid’ would not just connect offshore wind, but also open up trading opportunities that would help finance grid installation.

With just renewable energy flowing, the cables would essentially be idle 60 per cent of the time; but with energy trading between countries, usage could increase to 90 per cent and this would cut the installation cost per megawatt by more than half, says the smooth-talking Irishman.

While HVDC interconnectors like BritNed also facilitate electricity trading, the Friends say they will be insufficient to carry marine renewable power generated to the load centres of central Europe.

Matthew Knight of Siemens said: “Unlike point-to-point connections, the Supergrid will collect, integrate and route the renewable energy to the best available markets. Supergrid is a trading tool which will enhance the security of supply of all the countries of the EU.”

O’Connor says that the super-grid would be commercially viable even if only used to connect offshore wind farms, but would be even more attractive if used for international electricity trading; for example, meeting peak demand in the UK with cheaper supply from Germany.

The Friends say that an offshore ‘supergrid’ would also faciliate increased use of hydropower from Norway as back-up to offshore wind power, but again subsea interconnectors already allow this. Furthermore, Norway’s 27 GW hydro capacity is plainly insufficient to back up 30 GW of offshore wind planned in the UK.

O’Connor says he is “absolutely convinced” 30 GW of offshore wind power can be built off the UK coast by 2020, thanks to generous subsidies under the UK’s Renewables Obligation scheme. Under present rules, a ‘supergrid’ would allow operators to sell electricity generated in UK waters across borders and still collect RO Certificates (ROCs). A UK Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesperson confirmed to PEi that all offshore wind electricity generated in UK waters is eligible for ROCs, as long as the wind farm is directly connected to the UK grid.

Yet even O’Connor, whose firm secured the 4 GW Hornsea Zone in the middle of the North Sea in the latest round of Crown Estate licensing, acknowledges it will be challenging to build 30 GW in less than ten years.

And while supply chain, engineering and technical challenges may slow down progress, there are grave doubts that 30 GW of offshore wind can be built without a further increase in government subsidies. Far from getting cheaper over time, offshore wind is getting more expensive. It is estimated offshore wind farms cost €3 million ($4.12 million) per megawatt: three times that of a combined-cycle gas fired plant.

Deep offshore wind farms further out to sea are even more expensive and it will be interesting to see if future governments delve deeper into the pockets of end-users, or scale back the offshore wind plans.

If the latter, then there is little need for a ‘supergrid’. If the former, then the lobbying by the Friends will make a ‘supergrid’ a political objective, and it will pressure the European Commission and its member states to contribute to building the ‘supergrid’, which could cost more than $1 trillion.

The Friends dream of Scottish kettles being powered by solar energy from Algeria and despite many regulatory, financial, not to mention technical, hurdles to overcome, this is possible. But is it cost-effective?

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