This article is part of our special report Europe’s electricity grids: Joining up the dots.
After years of trying to persuade sceptics, the renewable energy industry continues to face an uphill battle in convincing power producers that integrating more renewable energies like wind and solar will not put the electricity grid in jeopardy.
The policy chief of Europe’s electricity industry association has told EURACTIV that Europe will have to slow down its integration of renewable energies or risk power cuts and systems instability because of the slow pace of cross-border grid improvements.
“Either you go very fast in the transition – which is impossible [because] smart grids are expensive and the storage is not there in the needed scope – or you diminish the speed for integrating renewables into the system,” Susanne Nies of Eurelectric told EURACTIV in a phone interview.
Given a choice between meeting the EU’s target of getting 20% of energy – and 35% of the EU’s electricity mix – from renewables by 2020 or keeping the system stable, “I would rather say that system stability and avoiding blackouts is more important,” she said.
Nies cited a report claiming a rise of serious systems stability incidents last year from 300 to 1,000 across a swathe of northern Europe, and said that the Czech Republic came close to power black-outs in November and December 2010.
“We want to meet the 2020 targets but we need to be very careful,” she said, “because the worst case scenario is one in which we have a series of blackouts in Europe and there would be a loss of support first for the utilities but maybe also for the renewables. That would be a disaster.”
Her words reflect pessimism in the electricity transmission industry about the likelihood of balancing capacity for variable energy sources like wind and solar in time for 2020. Usually though, this is voiced off the record.
Speaking to EURACTIV last month, another industry insider said that renewables advocates "want to increase solar panels and we want to keep the lights on, but if the lights go out because PV [solar photovoltaic energy] has not maintained the power quality, it’s not in either of our interests.”
“If we’re connecting things that the system wasn’t designed for,” the source continued, “we’re putting stresses on it. Some people think it is a bit conservative for network operators to say that, but maybe it’s good to have a bit of conservatism when you’re thinking about a constant electricity supply. There is a bit of a trade-off between security of supply and reliability" and renewables.
Renewable energy advocates accept that Europe’s grid systems were built for fossil fuels but “the point is that this period is over,” said Arthouros Zervos, president of the European Renewable Energy Council. “We have to adapt and do it fast.”
Hydroelectric pump storage is currently the most efficient way of balancing electricity loads which can vary for renewables, when the weather is cloudy or windless.
Zervos said that some counties such as Italy had a probable excess of pump storage capacity while others had deficits.
As a result, “we would need much less storage if we improved our [cross-border] interconnections,” Zervos told EURACTIV, “because then you could use the storage capacity of your neighbouring countries.”
Anders Eldrup, chief executive of Dong Energy and a former permanent secretary in the Danish finance ministery, noted that similar concerns about integrating renewables had been expressed in his country’s past.
“When Denmark began pioneering onshore and offshore wind 35 years ago, people said ‘When it becomes 5% of total supply, we'll have an unstable system’,” he told EURACTIV.
“Then they said ‘when its 10%’, but we managed. Today it is more than 22%, the government wants to increase it to 50% in 2020, and the system is stable.”
One common algorithm
To advance electricity market integration by 2014, the EU hopes to have implemented one ‘common algorithm’ to determine electricity prices across Europe.
In the same year, common network code requirements for Europe’s power networks, currently being devised by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), are also scheduled to take effect.
“The future will be challenging,” one ENTSO-E source said of current grid integration concerns. “Keeping a secure system in the next years is our main concern and we are taking all possible actions within our legal mandate to support this goal.”
Nies called for the EU to mount a public acceptance campaign to overcome planning objections to transmission grid construction, better balancing provisions for renewables, more pump storage and grid interconnections, improved risk-sharing facilities, and a resolution of ‘loop flow’ problems, which can involve electricity being sent through several countries to avoid transmission bottlenecks.
But she also sounded a note of caution about anticipated haggling over the energy infrastructure package.
“I am very afraid that member states will refuse to use the regional funds in the infrastructure package for those projects which are not exclusively in their national interest,” she said.
“For the cross-border interconnections we need, there has to be a commitment from member states for much more Europe. It is impossible to do this with a nationalistic and North Korean-type approach.”
Mark Johnston, a senior policy director for the World Wildlife Fund, said: “Networks must develop in parallel with renewables growth. The new proposals reinforce a good existing national framework. Europe is doing what it can but it can only do so much and it is for other players including member states and local authorities and regulators to do their part too.”
In written comments submitted to EURACTIV after being interviewed, Susanne Nies , the head of energy policy at Eurelectric, said it was important to clarify that a fast transition to improving grid systems involved “developing the system needed to complement the integration of RES [renewables] - interconnections and grids, smart grids, and storage, as well as back up capacity” and that if this could not be done, “you must diminish, if you can not do this for the reason of public opposition of finance, the speed of putting new RES to the system. In addition, all this has to be done as a European approach, which ensures cost efficiency.”
Nies also called for the EU “to address the current investment concern, and the need for improved risk-sharing facilities. A European approach to system stability must ensure that the current ‘loop flow’ issues is solved, and that phase shifters on the borders don’t become the rule,” she said.
In meeting the EU’s 2020 targets, “policy makers as well as all other stakeholders need to be aware, and accountable of the consequences that has: grids, storage, back up, comprehensive regulation, back up capacity. In extremis, she was concerned that the EU would remain “sticking to a RES MegaWatt add in logics, sudden or even retroactive changes in support schemes, like in Spain or Estonia, or major system stability concerns including even blackouts in Europe. These might translate into a loss of support even for renewables development.”
However, Brook Riley, an energy spokesman for Friends of the Earth, was not impressed. “Eurelectric are saying this but at the same time they are doing what they can to block a strong energy efficiency directive,” he told EURACTIV. “Of course what they are not saying is that if you reduce the overall energy demand you’ve got less to do to meet the EU’s 20% renewables target. The simplest way to increase the share of renewables is to reduce energy demand which Eurelectric is more or less openly opposing.”
On 30 June 2009, the European Commission adopted its national renewable energy action plans (NREAPs) framework, requiring member states to explain how they would meet a binding target of providing for 20% of their energy consumption from renewable sources.
Member states were forced to provide sectoral targets for the proportion of renewable energy they would use in transport, electricity, heating and cooling, and offer a road map for getting there. They were also obliged to submit future implementation reports every two years.
EU countries must also spell out what steps they are taking to cut red tape on administrative procedures and explain any "unnecessary obstacles". To further help the integration of renewable electricity into the grid, infrastructure development plans have to be reported, including reinforcement of interconnections with neighbouring countries.
Although each nation was required to submit its plans to the Commission by 30 June 2010, Hungary did not submit its proposals until near the end of 2010. Should the EU executive rule a plan insufficient, it can start infringement proceedings against the member state concerned.