EU eyes 'supergrid' to harness Saharan sun

  

Massive solar power installations in the Sahara desert could feed the EU's growing energy demand via a new supergrid. The idea is backed by France and the UK, which is simultaneously trying to limit priority access for renewables to domestic grids.

If successful, the supergrid project could supply all of Europe's electricity needs, according to Arnulf Jaeger-Walden, who heads the EU's Institute for Energy in the Netherlands.

The idea is based on the construction of a €45 billion high voltage direct current (DC) grid that could transfer electricity produced by Saharan and North African solar installations to consumers thousands of kilometres away. The construction of a new DC grid would be necessary since most of the EU's existing power grids operate on the basis of alternating current (AC) and as such lose too much electricity over long distances to make such a project viable. 

For the moment the idea, which has received the political backing of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, remains on the drawing board and is currently being developed by EU scientists. 

No concrete funding commitments have yet been made by private or public investors at EU or member-state level.

Bigger is better?

While Brown is standing behind the ambitious Saharan supergrid project, the prime minister is being criticised for his stance on renewables at home. 

The UK is calling for a change in the language of the current draft proposals on renewable energys. Rather than stipulating that renewables "shall" have priority access to domestic grids, the UK wants to change the wording to "may" on the grounds that renewables do not necessarily need priority access to grids to increase their market share.

Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes, Parliament's rapporteur on the renewables proposal, sharply criticised the proposed re-wording. Such a change would "take us backwards," said Turmes, who wants to alter the Commission's proposed text by introducing amendments that give greater priority grid access to renewables (EurActiv 13/05/08).

The debate comes at a time when the EU's market for microgeneration or decentralised generation is poised to grow. Supporters of small-scale, home and neighbourhood-based electricity and heat production argue that such technologies can provide a considerable amount of the EU's energy needs without requiring massive grid investment. 

But microgenerators complain that administrative hurdles and high connection costs in many member states are blocking the development of the market (EurActiv 03/07/07).

 

Timeline: 
  • Oct. 2008: Parliament plenary and possible adoption of renewables proposals in first reading agreement.
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