The European Commission has published its long-awaited infrastructure package aimed at making Europe's energy networks fit for the 21st century. In the electricity sector, the EU executive body has identified four priority grid connections needed to improve energy security and transport large amounts of power produced by renewable sources.
Pipelines and power grids must be updated to meet the commission's target of producing 20% of final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Technology such as meters and smart grids need to be introduced to reduce energy use by 20% by the same date.
The commission highlights the urgent need to find ways of financing this change, predicting that the necessary investments will not be made on time because building permits take too long to obtain and many of the projects are not commercially viable.
The four so-called priority corridors are important for wind power. The first is an offshore grid in the North Sea with a connection to northern and central Europe to transport power to big cities and store it in hydroelectric plants in the Alps and the Nordic countries. The commission notes that rapid development of electricity generation from offshore wind in the North and Baltic Sea regions is hampered by insufficient grid connections, both offshore and onshore.
The second priority corridor involves the creation of interconnections in south-western Europe to transport power generated from wind, solar and hydro to the rest of the continent. The commission says interconnections between Spain and France are essential as the Iberian Peninsula is not sufficiently connected to the rest of Europe.
It adds that in order to bring power from renewables in Spain to western Europe and integrate Spain into the European network, the capacity of power lines between France and Spain needs to be increased from around 1.4GW now to 4GW in 2020. The other two key projects are the development of connections in central-eastern and south-eastern Europe, and the integration of the Baltic energy market into the European market.
The commission estimates that around EUR200 billion is needed to upgrade gas pipelines and power grids by 2020. It claims that half of this will be delivered by the market, but insists that national governments will have to take action to raise the other EUR100 billion. The commission will therefore propose a new financial instrument in June to support projects deemed worthy of help after 2013.
"Beyond grants, innovative market-based solutions may be proposed, such as equity participations, guarantees and publicprivate partnership loans," the commission says. It insists that outside help is sometimes needed to get projects up and running as the limited size of the market means they are too small for the private sector to get a good return on investment. It also believes it is more financially efficient to organise this work on a cross-border - rather than a national - scale.
EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger also wants construction-permit granting procedures to be faster and better co-ordinated for projects classified as of European interest - a list of which will be drawn up in 2012. The commission notes that the time between the start of planning and final commissioning of a power line is frequently more than ten years.
The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) agrees with the commission's aims. Christian Kjaer, EWEA's chief executive, called the proposals ambitious and far-sighted. But he warns that the commission now has to prove that the legislative proposals on financing and permitting due out next year match the scale and ambition of the vision. If national governments fail to support the proposals, "we will face an absurd situation in which renewable energy capacity is being built, but no adequate grid exists to deliver it", he warns.