North Sea Grid will prove EU is serious about Energy Union

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

Teeside wind farm could be part of the proposed North Sea Grid. [Paul/Flickr]

There is cross-party support and a common vision for a North Sea Grid as part of the Energy Union project. But it must be prioritised by policymakers, write Bas Eickhout and Ian Duncan.

Ian Duncan is a Scottish Conservative MEP and member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament. Bas Eickhout is a Dutch GreenLeft MEP and member of the Greens/EFA group.

There are few global challenges greater than climate change. The warning from scientists is stark; reduce carbon emissions now or face irreversible consequences. At the same time, Europe is beset with a challenge all too local. We are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. Energy security is a problem all too real for those in the east.

Addressing the challenge of climate change and energy dependency upon Russia is the task before the EU. To that end the European Commission has published proposals on the Energy Union. Though short on detail, priority and financing, the document represents a step forward. On Wednesday, we hosted an event on one particular aspect of the Energy Union: the North Sea Grid.

Some of you will be wondering what on earth brought together a Scottish Conservative MEP and a Dutch Green MEP. Well, it is tempting to say that neither of us are typical in our politics, but that would only be half the story.

The reality is that we both know an opportunity when we see it, and the Energy Union is just such an opportunity for the countries around the North Sea. 10% of Europe’s electricity could be generated from wind blowing across the North Sea but without interconnection between Ireland, Scotland, the UK, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, much of that will be lost.

By holding an event on the North Sea Grid, we wanted to tell the Commission that there is cross party support and a common vision for a connected North Sea, and that for too long it hasn’t got the political priority it deserves.

Advantages

The advantages of creating energy flows across the North Sea are numerous. For businesses and consumers who face electricity prices double that in the US, bills will fall because electricity will be exported, not wasted. Meeting peak demand, a key concern throughout winter, will become easier with the large exporters like Norway involved. Our CO2 emissions will decrease as offshore wind, tidal and wave power get a shot in the arm; and, not least, a North Sea Grid could be an alternative to importing more and more gas from Russia.

During the event MEPs, businesses, regulators and the European Commission’s Director of Energy Marie Donnelly discussed the many challenges we need to overcome to make the North Sea Grid a reality. Some challenges are big, like achieving intergovernmental agreements on national subsidy schemes.

Others seem smaller but no less significant. For example, North Sea countries have different rules when it comes to avoiding collisions between birds and windmill blades, there are divergent safety requirements on ships and varying rules on the type of cable allowed at the bottom of the sea. These matters may sound mundane, but if we get these wrong we might jeopardise the whole project.

The real challenge in creating a functioning North Sea Grid lies in coordination. The North Sea is one of the busiest marine environments in Europe. From international shipping to fisheries and tourism, planning takes a great deal of work. However, these challenges are not unknown, and the North Sea Grid as an idea has floated since the early 2000’s.

What we need above all is member states and the European Commission to show the political will and make it happen. A first important step will be calibrating the Energy Union with the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).

Marie Donnelly said that she wants to see the Grid prioritised during the Dutch EU Presidency of 2016 – the clearest signal yet from the European Commission that they are ready to act. There is a lot of work to do over the next year, and until then we will continue to work together across political divides, with industry and regulators to help identify the challenges and solutions to creating the North Sea Grid.

With a global climate deal hanging in the balance and Russia continuing to disrupt energy flows to the east, the consequences of a poorly implemented Energy Union are great. With the North Sea Grid we can prove that Europe is serious about reducing emissions and energy independence, for Scotland, for the Netherlands and for countries right across the North Sea basin. The time for a North Sea Grid is now.

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