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Hardwiring Europe’s wind power

Europe’s transmission operators need more wind power on the wires, but they and the wind industry want Brussels’ help for this to happen. We may see an emergence in 2007, writes Heather Johnstone.

It was Saturday 4 November that millions across Europe lost power as the grid operators implemented a massive load-shedding operation to avoid a total collapse of the grid. Procedures worked, and power to most was restored within two hours. The trigger had been in Germany’s E.oN Netz grid, and swiftly the rumours started: ‘It was wind power that started it’. Fortunately, just a few days later both the wind industry and Europe’s transmission professionals co-hosted a conference in Brussels specifically to discuss the large-scale integration of wind power into Europe’s transmission network. As Urban Keussen of E.oN Netz, and José Luis Fernàƒ¡ndez of REE (Spain) both confirmed, there was no evidence that any wind turbine or associated device had been a trigger for the problem. Nonetheless, there had been a great deal of wind power on the grid on that day (4000 MW in Spain when the problem occurred), which made managing the crisis more tricky.

ETSO, the association of European Transmission Service Operators, and EWEA, the European Wind Energy Association (who jointly ran the November conference) have been working closely on this important issue for some time. There is no doubt that ETSO is firmly committed – surprisingly so, some might think – to finding the solutions that are needed to accommodate substantial amounts of wind on Europe’s grids. As ETSO’s Pierre Bornard said at the event, “We need the wind industry to supply Europe – that’s clear now”. His colleague, ETSO President Daniel Dobbeni, was even more emphatic: “Europe’s energy demand will continue to increase, as will competition for resources ࢀ¦ We are contemplating a major shift from a way of living based on cheap energy, and in this context wind power has to become a key element of any European energy policy.”

At present, some 45 GW of wind generating capacity is installed in Europe. If EWEA’s targets are met (which they always have been in the past), there will be 80 GW by 2010. By 2020, EWEA expects 180 GW of wind capacity to be installed across Europe – this would give the continent a wind penetration (in percentage terms) equal to that in Germany today. And by 2030 the EWEA expects no less than 300 GW, equal to Denmark’s current penetration of wind power (again in percentage terms). As a report on integration, published by EWEA a few months ago, points out, the constraints on the growth of wind power are not so much to do with wind technology as with regulatory and market issues.

Challenges? Yes, incorporating large amounts of wind power or other renewables does make extra demands on the transmission system that is currently in place, as EWEA’s report points out. A certain amount of balancing capacity is required to help manage some of wind’s variability. However, there is no need to back up wind megawatt for megawatt, because wind power participates together with other generating partners in a system that is designed to deal with highly variable power supply and demand. Only a small fraction of the generation capacity available in the system needs sometimes to be re-allocated and re-scheduled to accommodate wind power – in other words, wind turbines supply firm capacity, says the report (www.ewea.org).

Monthly capacity factors of German wind power generation to increase significantly
Click here to enlarge image

The conference demonstrated that a host of technological solutions are already on hand to permit a far higher percentage of wind on the grids than now, but new interconnections are needed to link new generation sites (near wind power) with centres of demand.

To achieve that, the main issue is putting in place a European strategy that will stimulate the building of the new transmission infrastructure that is essential if liberalized energy markets are to work. “New interconnectors are essential – we need incentives for these grids to be built,” said EWEA’s CEO Christian Kjaer. Dobbeni agreed that a European approach is needed to harmonize policy.

It may not have been designed that way, but Europe does work as a network, believes Dobbeni. It has evolved into an integrated system. New forms of generation, such as wind power, lead to new flow patterns between neighbouring countries, and the current system is not failsafe. Hence the need for a European energy regulator, and the need to operate grids appropriately – so they can integrate smarter options.

Over the coming 20 years Europe will need to replace, or build, an estimated 760 GW of new power generating capacity. Meanwhile, Europe – the world – faces not only a climate crisis, but uncertain markets for fossil fuel supply. As EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs pointed out at the Brussels conference, Russia’s internal market is likely to make very strong demands on the natural gas resource. “The best way to respond to the security of supply question is to produce energy at home,” said Piebalgs, adding a preference for wind energy.

Just days earlier, Sir Nicholas Stern had delivered his Review on the Economics of Climate Change, providing an economic basis for investment in carbon-neutral power generation. Put in a nutshell, he pointed out that the only investments that make economic sense against a backdrop of climate change are those made in clean technologies. That includes wind power and other renewables.

January will see the European Commission deliver a new energy policy package that could be endorsed as early as March. The signs are that renewables, and grids capable of delivering them, will be a key part of that.