(Originally Letter to Guardian Newspaper)
With the battles continuing over the EU’s access to Russia’s gas supplies via transit arrangement across the Ukraine, it may be worth looking to the future, when a different set of energy options may change the geopolitical realities. Currently we are fighting over the dwindling and increasingly expensive oil and gas reserves in Russia and the Middle East. But soon we will have to look elsewhere for energy. Some look to nuclear energy- but quite apart from the costs and the risks, uranium is a finite resource. Fortunately, the new renewable energy options are not only sustainable, but are getting increasingly economic- and the resource is very large.
A recent study by Dr Gregor Czisch, from the University of Kassel in Germany, has suggested that the EU should develop a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) super transmission grid across Europe , which would make it possible to distribute and share wind derived power from wind farms in windy areas, including the huge offshore wind resource in the North Sea. With HVDC, energy transmission losses are very low, even over very long distances, so, with suitable extensions, the supergid could also link to remote but even windier regions around the EU – including Kazakhstan, which Czisch says has a wind potential of 210 Giga Watts (GW) and Northern Russia and Western Siberia (350GW). Czisch also looks at the wind potential in Mauritania (105 GW) and Southern Morocco, which he puts at 120 GW. To put these numbers in context, the UK current total electricity generation capacity (all sources) is just under 80GW, while Germany already has around 22GW of wind capacity in place.
Wind is the cheapest of the new renewables and there is a major resource in and around the EU- including in several of the new EU countries (Bulgaria, Romania and Poland in particular) as well as in some countries which may yet join the EU (e.g. Turkey and the Ukraine). However there are also other options. The supergird could also link into the huge hydro resource in Norway, which could help balance variations in wind availability. And longer term there is a huge wave and tidal current flow resource in the North Sea. In addition, the supergrird could link into the even larger solar resource available in desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East- harvested using giant focussed-solar power plants, with molten salt heat stores to allow for continued generation overnight. Several of these so called Concentrating Solar Power plants have already been built in Spain and the USA, and similar projects are underway or planned in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and elsewhere, with undersea grid links being developed across the Mediterranean. They will use some of the power locally, e.g. for desalination, but they will have some available for export.
The European Commission has indicated that a pan -EU supergrid ought to have a high priority to help ensure energy security long term, and the availability of these massive renewable resources on the periphery of the EU, coupled with the very large renewable resources within the EU, offers us the hope that we can move beyond the current energy battles and on to a sustainable energy future. It would take time and money, and would open up some new geopolitical issues. The EU would still be partly reliant on imported energy, but fair trade arrangements could be negotiated to avoid exploitation and reduce the risk of being cut off. However, if we want energy security, and to limit climate change then this new approach, coupled of course with a proper attention to reducing waste and using energy more efficiently, looks like a key way ahead.
Prof. David Elliott
Energy and Environment Research Unit,
The Open University,
Milton Keynes, MK 76AA
Tel: 01908 65 3197