In the early transition phase, i.e. with a penetration by renewables of less than 25% in each country,

  • By utilising the spare capacity held to meet customer variability, plus by turning down coal fired generation in response to quantity of electricity being generated by renewables,

Then, the Supergrid itself gives rise to generation balancing,

  • By creating a portfolio effect, and thus smoothing out the local contribution of wind for instance, by capturing a storm front all along its trajectory and distributing the energy supranationally,
  • By combining wind and PV so that the obvious absence of electricity generation at night from PV is complemented by wind,
  • By using electricity storage devices. In principle it is possible to get to 100% penetration by renewables if the storage systems are big enough,  
  • By demand side management. The technology already exists to allow demand to follow available supply, in response to, for instance, price signals, or frequency dips, etc.

Most current grids are bounded by national boundaries, with, on average, <10% interconnection to neighbouring systems.  They are designed as extensions to electricity island-systems, and are not fit for purpose to facilitate enough renewable generation to ever become 100% carbon free.

A SuperGrid is therefore needed.

By co-investing in a SuperGrid and importing at equal cost from their more energetic neighbours, via a dedicated leg of the SuperGrid. No need to grow olives in the arctic circle! 

Some actions can be taken locally to reduce demand and use whatever is most efficient to each city and country but there is less need for overlap and duplication if the European framework allows wind generated in the north and solar in the south to be equally accessible to all European citizens.

For example, the technology now exists to allow new homes to have their roofs constructed using photo-active tiles.  Building regulations in various countries should mandate that new roofs have power generation built into the roofs, building on insulation improvements from other EU directives. Hybrid heat pumps can be phased in and incentivised.

However, the bulk generation needs to be coordinated at EU level.

We need a new funding and deregulation framework for transmission infrastructure, in the same way that generation was deregulated 30 years ago. 

No individual country can bring about this vision.

By very definition, it requires mutual interdependence between all the European countries, including the UK, whatever shape Brexit takes. The UK, among its other brilliant qualities, has a major proportion of the North Sea wind catchment area

Everything about the implementation of this vision is new and therefore innovative.

At EU level, the Energy Union has to be turned into a binding legal framework. Much work has been funded and coordinated by the EU to drive the technology forward and now the market and funding structures need to catch up.

Some projects, from the internet to the NHS, would not exist without huge initial investment but create multiples of that value.

This project requires very large capital sums to be deployed but, remember, the EU and it’s countries spend billions every year importing fossil fuels and subsidising the existing electricity markets. Renewable generation has zero variable cost. 

The electricity generated has to have a guaranteed market. The difference between what exists today and what will be needed for a SuperGrid is that the guaranteed price should be realised no matter where the electricity is eventually consumed.  

If the normal method of incentivising the building of grids is followed an allowable rate of return is allocated to qualified builders. Normally this is regulated and of course up to now applies to individual countries.  

Much more involvement of the private sector will be needed because the pace of development will be accelerated by reasonable profit.  If following a market approach, it would be important to reward the early movers more than would be the case with later initiatives, so that the building of big, offshore transmission corridors becomes established as a new asset class as quickly as possible. Eventually a competitive method of allocating transmission contracts could be established.

There is a need for a central European Electricity Regulatory Authority, analogous to the FERC in the US.  Its main functions would be set down by EU Directive. Among it’s principle functions would be to give effect to the orderly build out of the European wide electricity generation and transmission system, while ensuring that the customer was served in a non-discriminatory way.  It needs to work with ACER and the national Regulators, so that a common set of rules exist.

ENTSO-e exists but a true European-wide Transmission System Operator needs to be mandated for a carbon free electricity system and financed as such. This may not be such a big step, as such coordinating organisations exist in the US.

To quote from Electricity Transmission A Primer, By Matthew H. Brown, et al;

“As a result of these changes, the power system that began as fundamentally a local system evolved into an interstate system. Power used in Rhode Island might have been generated in Connecticut or elsewhere in New England. By 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that, because of this fast-developing transmission system, electricity was not an intrastate but an interstate commodity that therefore was subject to federal regulation in addition to state regulation. Later Supreme Court rulings affirmed and built upon this federal jurisdiction over the transmission system. Two other major pieces of federal legislation have been important in recent years: the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) and the 1992 Energy Policy Act (EPACT).”

The Mid Continental independent System Operator or MISO exists in the US and performs many of the functions that the newly mandated EU TSO would need to do. Its area is 2,774,600 sq kilometres, whereas the area of Europe is 4,422,800 sq kms, so there is precedent.

It will take some time to achieve this vision, and Europe needs a continuous electricity supply in the interim.  This will continue to be supplied from the sources that are there now with incremental changes to the fossil/renewable/nuclear mix.

Up to now, each country holds its own spare capacity to manage variations in customer demand and unplanned forced outages of generation plant.  There is an interim benefit from implementing part of the SuperGrid solution immediately – via “hybrid” generation and interconnection projects, until such time as a true network can be implemented.

For example, capacity mechanisms seem to be on the way out, spare capacity equipment which exists to meet German/UK supply shortages could offer coverage to the other nation’s customers, north sea offshore generation projects almost always make more sense today if they can access more than one market, short term political targets must be met etc etc.

There are different customer demand profiles in Germany and the UK, arising from the disparate structures of the respective economies. The UK for instance derives 14% of its GDP from manufacturing whereas Germany derives 29%. Peaks and troughs happen at different times. This effect is reinforced by the fact that peak demand occurs at different times. The net effect is that the UK would not have to make the same investment in capacity only plant as it does currently.

The benefits of a properly future-proofed 10,000mw connection between the UK and Germany lasts long after the “interim” phase of which we are now speaking. The UK has massive access to the North Sea and will undoubtedly contribute more than its fair share of renewable electricity to Europe. Both countries should benefit in the short term and the whole of Europe in the longer term.