This article is part of our special report Europe’s electricity grids: Joining up the dots.
Arthouros Zervos, president of the European Wind Energy Association, shares his perspective on how to improve Europe's ageing power grid networks so that they can integrate the large amounts of renewable energies needed to meet the EU's 2020 targets.
Arthouros Zervos is president of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). He spoke to EURACTIV's environment and climate change correspondent Arthur Neslen.
António Correia de Campos, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the energy infrastructure package, said the proposed three-year time limit for grid permitting and planning applications was too stringent and needed to be relaxed. Other EU sources are concerned and forecast a battle behind closed doors. What do you think?
I can see the point because the real time frame for the approval and building of big lines or interconnectors is in the order of 10 years. Most of this time is spent on permitting. Usually there are reactions from the local population, and you have these delays. It could be that the three years was put there as a fair compromise. I can see the point that it is a short time but you have to be stringent and make an effort. If you’re more relaxed, projects will still take more than 10 years and it is not going to work.
The question of coordinators is very important to solve problems. I can see that probably we’ll have reaction from Council on this issue because member states never like that [stringency]. But if we want to successfully reach our 2020 targets, we’re already in 2012, and soon it will be 2013. If you’re ‘more relaxed’, you will be talking about meeting EU targets in 2030, rather than 2020, and we need that infrastructure on the electricity side. The Commission is talking about the Single European Market by 2014. How will it be achieved in two years without having the infrastructure in place? So OK, lets wait until 2015 or 2016 and then the whole story becomes less comprehensive. Market planning and grid planning in reality can’t work without interventions on infrastructure, it is impossible – or rather it will only work in some parts of the Union, mainly in central Europe where you have already some strong interconnections.
With grids, there seems to be a problem of too much national thinking, and countries imagining themselves at a competitive disadvantage when competing with other states’ energy supplies. Some EU officials say we need a ‘cultural revolution’ to start viewing cross-border transmission as being in both the collective and national self-interest but how can that come about?
Well it is very difficult because it is a technical issue and for the revolution you need to have the involvement of the people. It is difficult for the general population to be involved in that logic. But I agree that you need to rethink the story. Having the internal market function – which means interconnection – will benefit the consumer, because it ensures that the system works more efficiently. The cost problem is not about tomorrow but the day after tomorrow. It’s clear that the most efficient system is the one that can use national markets – with all their limitations – and still go to a more European market. Subsidiarity and ‘who controls’ are other issues. We are in a time where nationalism is becoming stronger and will affect even this issue. We should work on that in different ways, from the political, technical and regulatory sides.
Some electricity industry figures say that given the current pace of integrating renewables into a grid system which they weren’t designed for, and the lack of storage capacity, there could be systems instability and power blackouts leading to a loss of public support. Given the choice, they say they would prefer systems stability to more renewables, even if it means rewriting the 2020 targets. Is that accurate in your opinion?
Of course it is not accurate. I’ve been in this story for 30 years and I have heard different arguments for why renewables will cause problems. There is an issue. It is clear that the grid was constructed for centralised production from big fossil fuels and not renewables, and that’s the way it has been developed. The point is that this period is over. We are moving towards a more distributed generation and a large-scale integration of renewables. We have adapt and to do it fast.
We would need much less storage if we improved our [cross-border] interconnections because then you could use the storage capacity of your neighbouring countries. If you have pump storage, you have a possibility sitting there in your reservoirs. We use it every day in our system. We have hydro-reservoirs which are not even pump storage and in reality, it's electricity stored there. Most of the European systems have these so how difficult will this be?
There’s a lot of pump storage capacity in Italy because in the 1970s when they decided to build a lot of nuclear stations, they built a lot of pump storage at the same time. Finally, when they abandoned nuclear they just ended up with pump storage capacity! It is there now and it’s not used. In many countries, storage capacity is not enough but in Italy it's probably more than enough. If you have an interconnected system then you use these capacities. So I don’t think the argument that renewables are going to have to slow down is correct. I think we have to speed up our infrastructure to accommodate the renewables which are developing and that’s really the choice that we have in our hands.
The energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger said at a press conference last week: "I would really like to see the day when we have a security of electricity supply directive. This would require each member state to store the equivalent of 10 days of its electricity consumption." Do you think that was forward thinking?
It might be that this is the equivalent of the 30 days of gas supplies they currently have. I think you should have a flexible system which can react to different conditions in different ways. You always have different sources in an electricity system. With gas, you have one supply, although you could have different suppliers, and these days we have a security of supply problem with gas from Russia. There could be an emergency because of the gas supply. You have to design a system which is flexible enough to respond to different situations. You need a lot of sources and I think that renewables have an advantage there. If you have wind, water, solar and geothermal, you could also have flexibility in the system. You need to have some storage – it's always helpful – but it's not the same thing as having a gas storage supply which is a single source. With renewables, flexibility – what to do when there is no wind? – is built into the system.
How long do you think it will be before the price of storage comes down to levels that industry is comfortable with?
It is difficult to say because the price depends on the conditions you have. There are places with inexpensive pump storage and others without. It has to do with the civil works that you need. It is not a technology story – hydro is really not that expensive – usually it is the infrastructure that you need to build for civil works that is quite variable. But we already have a lot in Europe, the question is how you use it. In Greece, we have some pump storage – not enough – but it is used at night when we have cheap lignite [coal] production, to pump water for use at peak hours. But this is a different conception of using pump storage to integrate large amounts of renewables. The whole system has to be conceived and planned in a different way. I don’t think you will need a large amount of storage, depending on what part of Europe you are in. A really efficient system will integrate large amounts of renewables. We’re not far from there but we have to plan for it.
There are rumblings that the cost-benefit analyses which ENTSO-E [the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity] have been tasked with delivering on energy infrastructure projects are a political football that the political echelons in the EU should have taken responsibility for. What do you think?
I would agree because costs and benefits are also a political story, that’s clear. How can we evaluate what will benefit a country if it has an interconnection with a neighbour? It is a very difficult calculation, connected with the internal market. If you have two neighbouring countries and one has a market which is more expensive, the benefit will look different from one side or the other. If these markets function together in the future, it means one price will go up and the other will go down. If you take the sum of the whole system and look at it independently, you’ll see it's better. But in the short term, we’ll have an increase in prices for one side. So how do you calculate the benefit? After an independent technical calculation of the benefits, you have a look at the political aspect, and between the two you’ll have the final compromise. It is not going to be an easy exercise because the politicians are throwing the ball to the technical people [ENTSO-E] when it is also a political decision. This happens many times.
There is going to be distribution to different European areas and I think that the infrastructure package has been done quite well in that sense. Why would Greece be interested in the offshore grid in Northern Europe, or Northern Europe be interested in a strong grid in the South? But because it is divided between the different corridors and priorities, it is political at the end of the day. You have to be inclusive and move in all countries at the same time which is not the most efficient and does not have the best cost benefit.
What are you hoping and expecting to find in the EU’s renewables communication later this spring about milestones and interim targets?
The most important element is that we are expecting a target for 2030. It is a must, the story that the renewables strategy should be built on. In 2001, we had the initial indicative target for 21% of European renewables targets in electricity [as a share of the power mix] which we reached in 2010. Every time you put a target for renewables, you will have a large amount of people and organisations saying ‘this is impossible and too high’. But it has worked. The new 2020 targets which are binding targets have been working in the different member states, and especially those that were not very keen on the EU. This is the big effect we can have. So if we look at investment cycles and how investors can have confidence in investing, then we have to take a longer term view than just 2020. The main policy point of discussion on this renewables strategy is the target for 2030.
Are you just expecting targets for emissions reductions?
I am talking about targets for renewables.
What targets would you like to see?
As EREC [European Renewable Energy Council], we came out last year with 45% [for 2030] but I wouldn’t say that the number is critical. If it is 40% or 50%, the issue is to have an ambitious target up to 2030 and give confidence that this policy will continue and has a milestone in 2030. It is extremely important for continuing development, otherwise what will happen in 2021? You have the targets until 2020 and then what? There is a lot of talk about support schemes, but they are a different story. The question is: how do you arrive at this target? The main element for 2020 was the 20% binding target. It made the policy difference. That is what we expect from the process now. The rest is secondary.