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.”