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Hard work under way to build Europe's power grid

The political battle is won. Across Europe, governments have signed up to the use of wind power as the primary electricity technology for meeting the EU's commitment to supply 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

By then, between 230 and 265GW of wind power generating capacity will be feeding electricity into the European grid network, to supply 14–18% of estimated demand, up from 80GW of wind meeting 5% of demand today.

Now the hard work starts for Europe’s transmission system operators (TSOs), whose job it is to develop an electricity grid network to bring wind power efficiently from the far corners of the EU territory to centres of population.

A clear vision is needed of just what is required of this network, which, by 2050, will be reliant on wind power to meet 50% of customer demand.

Yesterday’s grid, based on large individual power plant and controllable power supplies, is in for a radical overhaul to manage tomorrow’s distributed renewable technologies and their variable generation.

The process has been started by the umbrella body the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), which has already identified the changes needed to modernise the grid network and the challenges involved.

In its recently published pilot ten-year network development plan, the Brussels-based organisation highlighted that in addition to upgrading existing transmission lines and building new ones, the EU needs harmonised network plans and codes if it is to achieve a truly pan-European grid.

The document calls for simplified regulatory approval processes for new lines and emphasises that significant amounts of cash are needed.

While the European Commission discusses ways to raise funds, some TSOs are looking at making better use of the existing network.

Dutch state-owned TSO, TenneT, for example, recently launched a transmission cable temperature and wind-monitoring project in Germany to help increase the capacity of high-voltage overhead lines when the weather conditions are right and so alleviate bottlenecks in the grid.

Another possible way of optimising use of the transmission network in the short-term is to install phase-shifting transformers to control the flow of electricity between parallel circuits and maximise the capacity available.

Ultimately, however, change has to happen and as the Danish experience has shown, wind can be accommodated economically and effectively into electricity distribution networks if planners carry out careful analysis of the optimum capacity of new connections linking supply and demand.

This means looking at the requirements for feeding wind into the grid as part of the whole EU energy picture, not in isolation.

New grid links that are needed to deliver power from wind-rich regions to centres of demand do not need to be rated at the full output power of the wind farms that they serve. Nor do they need exclusively to carry wind power.

EC-funded pilot projects

In order to test these theories, the European Commission this summer set up the so-called Twenties project.

With a budget of around €58 million to be spent over three years, the initiative will involve six specific demonstration projects designed to illustrate integration of wind power into the grid and examine whether wind is a serious contender to replace conventional thermal generation.

In one demonstration project led by Spanish wind giant Iberdrola Renovables, more than 200 wind turbines with a combined capacity of nearly 500MW are to be connected to the grid without endangering grid security, by using a new method for controlling voltage and frequency in the electricity system.

So the politicians have set the scene – now it is the job of the administrators and engineers to write the story.

The EU is hard at work to ensure that the 2020 targets become reality and that energy from renewable sources such as wind is fully integrated into a modern, pan-European gird network.

However, running through the whole debate is the question of money, or rather the lack of it. ENTSO-E has estimated that the seven main geographical investment clusters in Europe pinpointed in its pilot ten-year plan will cost in the range of €23 to €28 billion up to 2014, while the commission estimates that €200 billion-plus is needed over the coming decade to update the grid and address missing links such as offshore electricity grids in the northern seas.

The EU executive, ENTSO-E and the wind industry agree that new financing solutions must be found but how this is to happen remains unclear.

The commission will begin to tackle this question in its forthcoming infrastructure package, but insists that money is its last priority for the moment, preferring to concentrate on "defining which infrastructures are of wider European benefit and how we can make sure they built in time for the EU to meet its energy goals".

This approach is all well and good but at some stage, finance will have to become a priority if the required new infrastructure is to come on line quickly and effectively. 
 
Philippa Jones is European editor of Windpower Monthly

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