Energy without borders

New Scientist

Iceland has lots of geothermal energy, Norway has hydropower. The wind blows hard in Scotland and the sun always shines in North Africa. Helen Knight explores plans to connect these diverse sources to a single network

Plans to supply all of Europe's electricity from renewable sources has come a step closer thanks to progress in efforts to build a continent-wide supergrid connected to North Africa and theMiddle East.

The notion of a European supergrid was first mooted in 2008 by Gregor Czisch, then a researcher at the University of Kasselin Germany. Czisch, now an energy consultant at the Kassel-based Transnational Renewables Consulting, has produced a model of a vast renewable energy supergrid that stretches from Iceland to North Africa.

The sheer size of this grid would make it possible for Europe to rely entirely on electricity generated from renewables, such as wind, solar and hydro power, Czisch claims. Any intermittency in the supply would be smoothed out by the fact that electricity would always be generated somewhere connected to the supergrid: if the wind dropped across the North Sea, for example, it would still blow across the Sahara.

This grand plan came closer to reality in November 2011, when the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), a German-led organisation backed by companies including E.ON, Siemens and Deutsche Bank, announced that it will build a 500-megawatt concentrating solar power plant in the Sahara desert in Morocco. The plant will consist of mirrors spread over some 12 square kilometres to concentrate solar energy onto a fluid to heat it; the hot liquid will then be used to raise steam and generate electricity.

Construction of the first phase of the plant is scheduled to start in 2012 and be completed by 2016, at a cost of around €2 billion.

The DII is the industrial arm of the Desertec Foundation, which was founded in 2009 to generate 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050 from a €400 billion network of solar plants and wind farms dotted across the Sahara and the Arabian peninsula. The power would be transmitted to Europe via dedicated high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) cables, which are more efficient than traditional alternating-current cables over long distances.

Such plants would ultimately form part of a larger Europe-wide supergrid as envisioned by Czisch. In Czisch’s model, two-thirds of the electrical would be provided by wind power, with significant contributions from hydroelectricity plants in Norway and concentrated solar power and biomass plants. The network could supply all of Europe’s electricity needs at a cost of around €46.5 per megawatt-hour - close to today’s prices.

However, not everyone is in favour of such schemes. Building a supergrid would be costly and take many years to complete, says Rory O’Neill, founder of EuropaGrid, based in Clonmel in Ireland, which builds HVDC interconnecting cables – such as a planned 1000-megawatt link between the UK and France. While installing cables beneath the sea is relatively straightforward, limited production capacity means that making and stringing thousands of kilometres of cable across the continent would cost tens of billions of euros and take 30 to 40 years to complete, he says.

Czisch dismisses these concerns, arguing that production capacity will increase alongside demand, which should also reduce the cost. Still, he admits that a more serious delay could be caused by the waiting time for planning permission, which can take up to 15 years to be granted in some cases. Even this may not be a long-term problem, however: in October 2011 the European Commission announced plans to rewrite laws on the permission process for projects such as electricity transmission lines, limiting it to three years.

“There has been some progress towards the renewable supergrid,” says Czisch. “There are still many more steps left to make, and we need more speed, but there are more reasons to be optimistic now than in the past.”

,” says Czisch. “There are still many more steps left to make, and we need more speed, but there are more reasons to be optimistic now than in the past.”