EU needs a spark in its electricity grid ambitions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Commission has attempted to fast-track strategic electric power transmission projects by streamlining planning procedures. But that initiative, proposed in 2011, could itself perhaps be speeded up, writes Gerard Wynn.

Gerard Wynn is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.

The European Union will have to use all means at its disposal to convince people to accept construction of priority power transmission lines equal to four times the Earth's diameter, which are needed to integrate rapidly growing renewable power.

Options for speeding up planning approvals include more public engagement at an earlier stage and even prettier pylons.

But there is no avoiding the need to streamline the planning process for strategic projects, which will always leave some of the public unhappy. And there is no way to avoid the problem of cost.

The European Union's 2009 Renewable Energy Directive set targets and support for green energy and has been a big success in some ways. In three years, installed capacity across the bloc for wind power has gained 42% and for solar power has more than quadrupled, according to trade body data.

But the fact that wind and solar output can vary sharply from day to day has led to increasingly volatile wholesale power markets and unstable grids.

Increasing EU transmission capacity can reduce that volatility by relieving grid congestion, accessing a wider geographic diversity of weather and tapping more conventional power plants able to balance swings in solar and wind power.

This decade new power generation equivalent to one-third of present capacity will be built in the European Union, according to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSOE), an EU body.

Almost all of that will be from renewable energy sources, accounting for 220 gigawatts out of a 250 GW net increase, and much of that will be further from demand centres than conventional power plants, ENTSOE says.

The group identified 100 grid bottlenecks by the end of the decade, 80% of which were related to renewable energy connection and integration, in its "10-Year Network Development Plan 2012", published last year.

To help resolve these, it has announced long-term priorities for more than 100 transmission projects amounting to 52,300 kilometres of new and upgraded high-voltage routes requiring an investment of €104 billion.

About a third of those investments are being delayed "mostly because of social resistance and longer than initially expected permitting procedures", the report said.

"Permit-granting procedures are lengthy and often cause commissioning delays. If energy and climate objectives have to be achieved, it is of utmost importance to smooth the authorisation processes."

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) last year published a series of case studies on integrating renewables, including speeding up transmission projects through public engagement, in its report "Integrating Variable Renewable Energy in Electric Power Markets: Best Practices from International Experience".

It described a particular example of a (relatively) expedited project in Texas, which has more wind power than any other U.S. state.

Texas should complete this year some 3,000 miles (4,828 km) of transmission lines to service wind farms first proposed in 2008, NREL reported.

The Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) required developers to listen to people's concerns over a proposed route and hold at least one public meeting if 25 or more people live within 300 feet (91 meters) of the centerline of a transmission project up to 230 kV (kilovolts).

NREL noted that the most opposition was in a particularly scenic area where more than 10,000 landowners objected.

"Landowners in the region, many of whom were wealthy and politically connected, objected to the degradation of their land. Open houses for this line drew more than 3,400 people, and ultimately the PUCT approved a route following an interstate highway and required the use of monopoles near cities along the route."

In Europe, the higher population density leads to more worries about the landscape.

Denmark already gets more than 40% of its power from renewable sources, the largest share of non-hydro renewable power in the European Union, and has taken an extreme approach to gaining public acceptance for transmission lines.

To ease aesthetic concerns, it intends to bury underground all high-voltage 132 to 150 kV transmission lines.

Denmark's "Cable Action Plan" calls for the dismantling of 3,200 km of overhead lines as they reach the end of their service life and their replacement with 2,900 km of new cables underground over the next three decades.

The plan estimates the total cost at 14.5 billion crowns (€1.9 billion) but does not specify the incremental cost of placing cables underground rather than replacing them overhead.

The solution does not work for all countries and is especially expensive for extra-high-voltage lines.

In Britain, a 2005 proposal to expand a 200 km transmission line carrying 400 kV of wind power from the far north-west across Scottish mountains to populations further south attracted 20,244 objections.

The overhead project eventually won approval in 2010, after a lengthy planning enquiry. The Scottish government rejected calls to lay part of it underground on the grounds that it would cost an additional 263 million pounds (€306 million) to bury just a 15-km section.

Britain has its own trick. Grid operator National Grid in 2011 launched an international design competition for the "most visually acceptable" pylon.

The winning, single pole "T-pylon", designed by Danish engineers, is more streamlined than the steel lattice structure that the country originally adopted in 1927.

"This proposal postulates simple vertical and horizontal members. It has a classic appearance and elegance, yet its starting point is a pure engineering response," the judges said.

Given the cost of lengthy delays, governments will also have to use streamlined, central decision-making, to drive through these strategic projects.

In Denmark, the high-voltage transmission grid is fully owned by a public company, Energinet, which simplifies strategic decisions.

In Germany, the Grid Expansion Acceleration Law (Netzausbaubeschleunigungsgesetz) was designed to shorten planning and permission processes from 10 years to four years by shifting responsibility to the federal government, NREL reports.

The European Commission also has attempted to fast-track strategic transmission "Projects of Common Interest" by streamlining planning procedures.

But that initiative, proposed in 2011, could itself perhaps be speeded up. Its priority projects have yet to be confirmed.

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