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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thinking Big: Pan-European Wind Energy 'Supergrid' Proposed

As more wind energy projects go online in Europe, concerns remain that additional wind generation will require backup generation from other electricity production to balance out times when the wind isn't blowing. RenewableEnergyAccess reports that one of the world's leading wind energy developers is thinking big and thinks it has a solution to avoid concerns over backing-up intermittent wind power while also offering a more efficient, dynamic electric grid.

Ireland-based Airtricity unveiled plans in May to create a pan-European energy grid, or so-called 'Supergrid.' Much of this Supergrid would be undersea linking the growing number of European offshore wind farms and would link a series of wind farms from as far ranging locations as the Mediterranean, up to the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic and all the way up to the North Sea and Baltic Sea.

"The scale of this undertaking means that when fully operational Europe will have access to wind energy at all times because the wind will always be blowing somewhere on the grid," said Airtricity's Chief Executive, Eddie O'Connor.

The company will formally introduce the ambitious plan at a Parliamentary reception for MPs in Westminster today. In conjunction, the wind energy developer will also outline a proposal to build a Euro 22 billion, 10 gigawatt (GW) offshore wind energy project that would cover a wind expanse in the North Sea between the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. [Clearly, these guys are thinking big!]

The company's Supergrid concept will play an important complementary role for the project that would greatly eclipse by size any current wind project, offshore or on. As many as eight million European homes could be powered by a project this size. Obviously, in the absense of something like the Supergrid, a wind project that large would require sizable amount of backup generating capacity for times when the giant wind farm is becalmed.

The Swedish transnational company ABB Ltd. will be the project partner on the transmission side of the Supergrid. ABB is the world's leader in the development of high voltage direct current transmission lines. Trevor Gregory, Managing Director of ABB said they have established an advanced transmission technology called 'HVDC Light' which, among a number of applications, is used for demanding offshore applications. HVDC Light not only feeds electricity to platforms but it also connects and supports the integration of electrical networks. [This sounds just like a normal HVDC system to me, so I'm not sure what is so special about 'HVDC Light', but oh well...]

Since the project will require the approval of the EU, and involves multiple countries across almost the entire span of the European continent, Airtricity pitched the plan as an energy proposal for the wider European Union, not to specific nations.

"The Supergrid offers a unique opportunity to Member States to improve their security of energy supply," said the company, in a statement. "The power generated will be a common European rather than a national asset. Wind energy is a continental resource and thanks to the Supergrid it will be the common property of all the Member States.

Airtricity has plenty of wind energy experience, operating, among others, the Arklow Bank wind farm, the first real-world test of GE Energy's large 3.6 MW offshore wind turbines. The company is currently expanding operations into Scotland, England, and parts of the U.S. It currently has several thousands of megawatts of capacity in the planning and construction stages.

Well, clearly someone at least has the capacity to think big! If Europe can succesfully execute a project on this magnitude, I think it would go a long way towards changing the way we think about energy projects.

There are a variety of renewable energy megaprojects that could be constructued in the U.S. that would rival Airtricity's plan in scale: I'm thinking here in particular of a series of gigawatt-scale wind farms in the Dakotas with electricity transmitted via HVDC or hydrogen pipeline to demand centers like Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, etc. [if this idea intriuges you, I'd check out these two reports here and here]. Other potential renewable megaprojects that would require the vision and national (or transnation) committment that Aitricity's plans would take include:

  • large-scale solar farms in the Desert Southwest;

  • gigawatt-scale offshore wind farms in the north-south axis of Lake Michigan and the east-west axis of Lake Superior;

  • similar scale wind projects (and maybe wave farms) off the west coast of southern Oregon and northern California;

  • massive wind farms in the Aleutian Island chain (probably the windiest spot on earth with Class 7 winds over much of the archepelego) making hydrogen for shipment to the continental U.S. via pipeline or LH2 tankers

  • ocean current turbines teathered in the middle of the Gulf Stream [basically a massive undersea river of seawater]

  • Those are the kind of megaprojects that immediately come to mind. Each one could provide a major contribution to the national energy mix and could even come to dominate regional energy mixes. They would all however require varying degrees of 'think big' vision that hasn't been demonstrated in recent memory.

    However, lest you think such megaprojects are impossible, we need only look in our history books for the counterproof: the massive federal hydropower projects constructed beginning during the Great Depression/WPA era and extending on through the 1950s and 60s.

    If we dare to think big, big things can happen!

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