Smart grids could be Europe’s shale gas, Commission says

Maroš Šefčovič calls 2017 "the year of implementation". [European Commission]

Smart grids balancing intermittent solar and wind energy with flexible power demand could do for Europe what shale gas has done for the United States, a senior European Union official said on Wednesday (1 April).

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi? said smart grids are crucial for EU single energy market plans as they could integrate more renewables into electricity networks, boost security of supply and help lower prices for consumers.

“Smart grids should become Europe’s shale gas,” he told a conference of Brussels-based European grid organisations ENTSO-E and EDSO.

Abundant shale gas has boosted US energy independence, lowered power prices and given the country’s energy-intensive industries a competitive edge.

Earlier, EU climate and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete said smart grids were central to the Commission’s vision of making the EU the world’s number one in renewable energy and reforming European power markets.

“Smart grids work. They can reduce infrastructure capacity needed to meet demand by up to 30%,” he told the conference.

Cañete said some 25% of Europe’s electricity already comes from renewables and that could increase to almost half of EU power supply in 2030, but this would require more flexibility from grids.

He said the distribution system operators, which run the low- and medium voltage networks, will have to use power storage and demand management to encourage users to adapt their demand to the price and availability of power.

Coupled with metering systems, smart grids could help consumers adapt power use to different prices throughout the day and save money by consuming more energy when prices are low.

Smart appliances

Smart appliances will play a key role in this, Cañete said. Forty million dynamic-demand refrigerators could provide more than 1,000 megawatts of frequency response.

A smart appliance should be able to respond to information from grids, which could mean briefly turning itself off, or even turning itself on when it would not otherwise be operating to access cheaper energy, he said.

Demand response could save the European Union about €100 billion ($108 billion) per year, nearly €200 per citizen, he added.

The Commission says the EU needs to invest some €400 billion by 2020 to modernise power transmission and distribution grids. ENTSO-E and EDSO executives said they expect 150 billion of that would be spent high-voltage transmission networks, the rest on low- and medium voltage smart distribution grids.

Cañete said public funding would provide part of those funds but should be used to leverage private finance.

Energy projects should benefit from much of the €315 billion of public and private investments that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s investment plan will unlock over the next three years, the Commission says.

Šef?ovi? said that since the financial crisis, Europe had seen six years of huge underinvestment in the power sector.

“The requirements are staggering […] In some countries we have energy infrastructure that is very outdated,” he said.

Šef?ovi? said he hoped that most of the planned investment would go to the low- and medium-voltage distribution grids.

“The smart grids are the new brain of the system. They tell us where we need energy and where we can save energy,” he said.

Europe currently relies for the transmission of its electricity on a grid system that was substantially designed in the post-World War II period.

Power grids in the 20th century were originally built as local grids which over time became augmented and inter-connected.

Today, grid systems transmission and distribution operators need to consider a bewilderingly complex range of demand and supply issues such as: the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use, the challenges of switching to cleaner but more ‘variable’ power sources such as wind and solar energy, security of supply and protection from cyber-attacks.

According to the EU’s energy roadmap for 2050, cumulative grid investments between 2011 and 2050 will cost between €1.5 trillion and €2.2 trillion, depending on the amount of support provided to renewable energies.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Smart grids: Making connections

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