The EU must urgently develop a continental power grid

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

This article is part of our special report Access to Energy.

Germany's decision to go non-nuclear, which has infuriated its neighbours, might one day appear as a blessing in disguise, says Eberhard Rhein.

Eberhard Rhein is a senior advisor on neighbourhood policy at the European Policy Centre. He first contributed this commentary on where he is a regular contributor.

"By 2050 the EU aims at covering essentially all of its electricity needs from non-fossil sources: wind, hydro, solar, biomass, geothermal and possibly nuclear. A multitude of medium-sized power plants, widely scattered across the continent, will then satisfy an increasing electricity demand of 500 million European citizens and make Europe largely self-sufficient in electricity, except for some solar power imports from North Africa.

To ensure a continuous flow of electricity throughout the year, day and night, a complex system of interconnections (super grids at 380 kV, high-voltage and low-voltage, direct- and alternative-current) must constantly balance oversupplies in some regions with shortfalls in others, depending on the amount of wind and sunshine.

The denser the grid, the safer the security of supply of the system will be. Super high-voltage direct current lines will enable European grid companies to transport power over long distances with losses of no more than 10%.

The present power system is fragmented in 27 national grids, with a minimum of trans-border flow. To ensure a safe and cost-efficient power supply, this will have to change in future:

  • The farther apart renewable power plants, the more likely will it be to balance varying supply;
  • Solar power plants obtain the highest yields south of the Alps, conversely wind power plants achieve the highest and most constant yields off-shore in the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic.
  • At night time the system will depend completely on wind, biomass, geothermal and standby gas power plants.
  • Electricity rates must fully reflect the variations of supply and induce consumers to use electricity when it is cheap or refrain in times of high prices. Smart grids should facilitate these adjustments.
  • Whatever the quality of the future grid and standby/storage facilities, Europe must also be much more forthcoming in raising energy efficiency. This will make a safe power supply easier to achieve.

In conformity with EU legislation, power generation, transmission and distribution lie in separate hands, but their coordination across national borders leaves much to be desired. There is no EU blueprint for the modernisation and extension of European power transmission. Considering the long delays involved in planning operators should, in close cooperation with the EU Commission. produce blueprints for 2020, 2030 and 2050 horizons.

The German decision to phase out its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022 has made the construction of a European-wide transmission network all the more urgent. Germany intends to modernise some 4000 km and build additional 4000 km of transmission lines.

But for a undisturbed supply it will have to link its grid with its neighbour countries.

Building an EU-wide power grid extending from Sweden to North Africa and from the Baltic States to Portugal will be anything but easy:

  • Citizens are likely to oppose high-tension lines in their neighbourhood.
  • Power generation companies will resist the competition that will come with a free flow of electricity throughout Europe.
  • The technical challenges of making the future grid "smart" and enabling electricity to constantly switch across the system according to changing supply and demand will be substantial.
  • The network companies will have to raise big amounts of long-term capital – say €400 billion until 2030. They will only succeed to attract such capital if they can rely on a stable regulatory framework and obtain adequate returns. The EIB and EU funds for trans-European networks should complement private investments.
  • Last but not least, member countries will have to adjust their support systems for renewable electricity. Indeed, building a European grid should enable electricity to flow at any moment from the cheapest source of supply. National feed-in tariffs should therefore benefit all renewable power generation independent of its origin. National legislation will therefore have to be amended accordingly, which should accelerate the overdue downward revision of present feed-in tariffs.

Germany's precipitated decision to go non-nuclear, which has infuriated its neighbours, might one day appear as a blessing in disguise considering the complexity of the energy revolution and the long adaptation time required. Without it the EU might have lost another 20 years before tackling the complex issues ahead."

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