Super-grid gets super-serious, but does it rely too much on Norway?

The plan for a European ‘super-grid’ being proposed today by 10 companies, including Siemens of Germany and France’s Areva, might sound ridiculously over-ambitious.

Cynics are already noting that most of the members of the group would be direct beneficiaries of the vast amounts that would have to spent building the super-grid.

But this is a project that has already won serious political backing from nine EU member states and Norway, and, at least in its most modest version, looks like a realistic prospect.The 10 companies comprising the ‘Friends of the Super-grid’ group would like the connections eventually to encompass most of the countries of north-west and south-west Europe, like this:

Super-grid future plan

Super-grid future plan

If such a super-grid existed, it would indeed have a dramatic effect on European power supplies, unlocking the potential of offshore wind, improving the resilience of the grid and reducing electricity prices by allowing much more international trading.

The problem is that that project is about as ambitious as it looks. It is hard to pin down costings, but it the full super-grid shown above would be likely to run into the hundreds of billions.

So the Friends of the Super-grid have a plan for a more accessible, bite-sized Phase 1 that could be delivered for a more modest outlay of a mere €34bn.

The project would like something like this in the initial phase:

Phase 1 super-grid plan

Phase 1 super-grid plan

The grid would provide a way to harness surplus energy generated by the UK’s wind power farms, particularly offshore, which could increase to a capacity of 25GW under government plans.

Denmark, the world’s second-biggest offshore wind producer after the UK, already has grid links with Norway and Germany to offload its excess wind power. Norway in particular, with its big capacity for hydro-power, has a valuable role to play in backing up all that planned wind capacity when on still days.

As Bard Mikkelsen, chief executive of Stakraft, Norway’s power company, put it:

Hydro power in Norway should be valuable for compensating for the irregularity of wind power. That position – being a swing producer to the European market – is a very important role for us.

Apart from the cost, and the difficulty of harmonising even three countries’ regulator systems, let alone a dozen, the other problem could be that excessive demands are placed on Norway’s hydro-electric resources.

The country already perfiorms that vital “swing producer” role for Denmark, for which the two countries have been highly praised.

However, the numbers do not suggest that Norway could play that role for the continent as a whole. Norway’s hydro-power capacity is about 27GW, and peak demand, during the winter, is about 22GW. So at those times there is not too much capacity to spare. Certainly not another 25GW to back up Britain’s new offshore wind farms on a cold still day in January.

Norway’s average demand is lower, at about 15GW, though, so there should be much more spare capacity in summer. Perhaps the real benefit of Norway’s hydro-power would be to balance the grid for countries that have problems with supply tightness in the summer. Step forward France?

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