"Real energy security" – Prof. David Elliott, Open University

 hvdc links planned and built from Wikipedia image(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

5 comments on “"Real energy security" – Prof. David Elliott, Open University

  1. —–Original Message—–
    Sent: 23 January 2009 18:57
    To: Claverton Group; Dave Elliott; C Hodrien
    Subject: Re: Claverton Energy Group
    Dear All
    The priority is the build renewables first and then
    develop an intercontinental grid.
    The grid in the UK only came about after a very large
    number of power stations had been. In fact it only
    really came into its final form around 1980 when it
    became possible to replace power stations built
    between 1920-1960 with big modern units.
    All of this stuff is complete pie in the sky.
    Your are quite wrong – the priority is to build both the renewables and the grid together. Grids take at least 10 years to build, turbines 18 months.
    With your scheme – renewables first, grid later, we would end up in Europe as we ALREADY HAVE in UK with not enough transmission for the UK renewables that people want to build – indeed if you read the IEA report I circulated a few months ago it says just that.
    You are quite wrong in your interpretation of the history of the UK National Grid’s history. The big modern units could only come about once the grid had been built.
    Lord Weir’s enquiry, 1925 created it, dismayed by the hopeless mess the free market (Bruno Prior please note – just like the mess the banks have now of course now created with banking) had made with many different systems DC AC frequency etc and many hopeless small local inefficient power stations.
    When the grid was constructed in 1933, not 1980 as you imply, many of the local stations were then as intended by Weir, abandoned as uneconomic, and standby for the whole system was shared by fewer larger more efficient stations, meaning much of the multiple duplications which occurred at local level good be done away with.
    ( Imagine 30 towns each with 3 x 1 MW stations, 1MW flat out, one as spinning reserve on low load, and one on standby in each town – grid them together, and you can flog of 30 of the standbys and happily run with only 5 x 1MW as spinning reserve rather than 30))
    Precisely this reduction of standby and spinning reserve would happen with a European grid irrespective of any renewables.

    This is why the utilities are against it – they exist to sell power, and they would sell less, with a Europe wide grid, because many of their power stations would become redundant, and the stations which were left would be more efficient.
    So the priority is to come up with a coherent plan for both renewables, conservation and the grid and get on with it. This should technology be paid for with the government printing the money, rather than giving it to the bunch of wasters in the city who have wrecked the world economy on complicated fantasy money schemes, and destroyed our manufacturing.

    Kind regards

    Dave Andrews

  2. The supergrid idea would take a huge effort politically – it’s probably beyond the EU’s current negotiating capacity. But the imports would only meet part of the EU’s requirement for electricity, the bulk would obviously still come from local/national renewable sources, back up in the interim with gas and maybe coal ( with CCS). But the two areas – imports and national/ local) could be expanded roughly in parallel, reinforcing each other. What we have to avoid is the imports being used as an excuse not to develop our national/local resource. We need both.

    I would also like to point out that it just deals with electricity- although of course that could be seen as taking care of a lot of transport energy needs ( with plug in cars etc). On the all important heat side, good building design/energy efficiency can help a lot to cut demand and then there are all the heat supply options we have been talking about- domestic solar collectors and heat stores, biomass CHP large and (possibly) small, biogas from AD possibly feeding to fuel cells etc etc. If we really must ( I worry about open cast mining) there is also the idea of using gassification of coal with CCS, to provide hydrogen for local CHP. And I guess some of the electricity could be used for heat- e.g in heat pumps

    So its a mixed system at various levels, probably being developed at uneven speeds.

    Dave Elliott

  3. Dear Professor Elliot,

    I do not see the problem with Europe organising such a grid.

    There is already a trans european group dealing with international grids – UTCE.

    They could give the problem to a large consulting group – Mott Macdonald say who design this sort of thing, and they would repeat Czisch’s calculation to establish the position of the inter connectors.

    Europe would then merely instruct the members states to a) undertake the lengthy planning that’s has been gone through for each line, which typically takes 7 years and then to let tenders to build them to the free market.

    Once built they can be sold off to the private sector to operate.

    Not much different to the central planning which has gone on for years for the various highways, and tunnels connecting various European countries.

    Whilst these things may happen at different speeds, it is essential that planning for the grid takes place now, since it is the longest lead time item. It is the failure to do this in the UK which is, as I write, holding back wind energy in UK – eg nothing more can be built in Scotland until the connection is beefed up.

    Gary Bloke.

  4. Bernard Quigg an electrical engineer said….

    Just an addition to Dave’s potted history.  The concept of the national grid was in technical papers by Alexander Kennedy a partner in Kennedy and Donkin, a partnership of consulting engineers which started with a reciprocating steam engines circa 1890 in Belfast.  They became part of an American owned consulting engineers about a decade ago. The concept was a 132kV network linking the various power companies/ municipalities.

    Some of the old generating plant was pretty inefficient and unreliable e.g Kingston on Thames owned a station which was 16% efficient on a good day. In the 1930s someone a few miles away with a set of Mr Parsons new steam turbines was probably about 26-28% efficient so in the poorer towns or those who voted not to spend, buying power looked good compared with buying coal. Interconnection was sometimes only to avoid buying the 5th or 6th set needed to give the reliability a large town expected. In the North East, another firm of consultants Merz and McLellan predated the national grid with a 66kV regional scheme.  They have now been swallowed by the same US firm. In the 1960s growth made it necessary to overlay the 132kV with a 275kV network. However politics came into play with Harold Wilson’s rush for growth so we ended up with a lot of 400kV capacity. We didn’t seriously need such a high voltage.  Now,some 40 years later we can use it. Increments  in technology have allowed a lot of capacity to be added in increments. Better conductors slung on the same towers can add a quarter, solid state voltage regulation can do about the same. I think we are now knocking up against the limits of that approach. I suspect that a 500kV or 600kV dc overlay would be a pretty good national policy.  Modern underground or marine dc cables look good.  However don’t expect hardly any of the technology to be  from the UK.  We can do the low tech work and use other peoples products but not much else for the simple reason so few of us want to be power engineers.
    That goes for most generation as well. We do have pretty good power company operators but then so do many other third world countries. Can anyone add a happy ending?

    Bernard Quigg 

  5. The super grid sounds great provided the political issues can be overcome and sufficient security/military can be made available to assure its integrity. There are plenty of people in this world who would enjoy disruting Europe.

    For example;

    Not so long ago I was assigned to the construction of a gas turbine power generation project in the centre of Burma on the road to Mandalay. The need for the power was that an adjacent industrial plant was for ever having its power supply interupted. Restart took several days and no sooner was it up and running the power supply was lost again. Its electrical power came from hydro plant located some two hundred or so miles away in the East of the country. In spite of the military presence dissidents enjoyed themselves and took great staisfaction in disrutpting power supplies by blowing up the electricity pylons. This was such a regular occurence that the output of the plant was severely disrupted.

    Denis Stephens

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