We have Smart Grids and we have SuperSmart Grids (SSG). The SSG is an ambitious attempt at combining Europe's large-scale grids that transmit electricity over long distances (Super Grids) with decentralized production of electricity from distributed, small installations (Smart Grids). Here's why...
A major problem with renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, is that supply is often intermittent. These fluctuations cause strain on grid systems, such as the currently unstable European system that is unable to meet rising energy demands.
Researchers, working under the EU CIRCE project1, believe the SSG could solve both the fluctuation and instability problems, thanks to high voltage direct current ((HVDC) technologies which allow electricity to be transmitted over long distances with minimum losses and the European Commission's Renewables Directive, which was designed to help meet the EU goal of 20% of its energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. The directive includes factoring in imported renewable energy from other countries towards the EU's goal(s). This means incorporating energy from sources like large-scale solar thermal power plants in the deserts of North Africa, where conditions are more economical for generating solar power.
The SSG benefits from large economies of scale and low running costs, but creates important challenges. At today's costs, initial investments for thermal solar plants in North Africa would be up to three times higher than for similar capacity increases with conventional fossil fuel plants in Europe. Things to consider:
- better energy security thanks to a more diverse renewable source base.
- a more stable supply of imported energy for international electricity trade, as electricity cannot be stockpiled the way fossil fuels can.
- a physically integrated European electricity market, which could make electricity cheaper for consumers, though the initial investment would be substantially higher.
- The profitability of these investments depends on renewable support mechanisms and future carbon prices. Currently there is no European support mechanism that would apply to imported renewable electricity, and future carbon prices are highly uncertain.
- Bilateral renewable support mechanisms, such as those between Italy and Albania, are not suitable for imports in quantities sufficient to take advantage of economies of scale, nor for meeting decarbonization requirements.
- Large-scale imports to Europe are likely to be politically attractive to North African countries, but only if they are coupled with efforts to meet increasing local energy demand, including greater access to modern energy.
- A supporting legal framework is needed to obtain permission for the rights of way of the electricity lines across national and local boundaries.
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