Transmission needs a European approach

An electricity network disturbance which put the lights out across large patches of the European continent early last month added a new dimension to not only the EU's energy supply dilemmas, but also to a timely conference on large scale integration of wind energy. With substantial European Commission input, the conference underlined how seriously wind energy is being taken at European and national government levels as a means of alleviating the problems of climate change and secure energy supplies, compounded as they are by Russia's wielding of gas supply as an instrument of political blackmail.

Realising the full potential of Europe's wind energy resource requires building most wind plant where the wind blows most. That can only be done with centralised planning of a strong and well interconnected electricity transmission network. Big new cables are being built, but not with wind energy in mind

An electricity network disturbance which put the lights out across large patches of the European continent early last month added a new dimension to not only the EU's energy supply dilemmas, but also to a timely conference on large scale integration of wind energy. With substantial European Commission input, the conference underlined how seriously wind energy is being taken at European and national government levels as a means of alleviating the problems of climate change and secure energy supplies, compounded as they are by Russia's wielding of gas supply as an instrument of political blackmail.

For the around 250 delegates from 22 countries who gathered on polished parquet beneath the glittering chandeliers of the illustrious Concert Noble in Brussels on November 7-8, the blackout three days earlier was very much on their minds, especially with wind power being wrongly blamed as the cause (page 30). The complex range of topics packed into the conference's dense two-day program belied the optimistic slogan prominently displayed by one of the event's main sponsors, giant engineering conglomerate ABB: "Wind power should be so simple." Indeed, the word "challenge" was used so frequently in presentations that the old-fashioned but less affirmative "problem" would have made a welcome change.

Integrating wind energy into Europe's electricity supply mix, however, should not be regarded as more problematic than getting any other power source to the market, stressed Hannele Holtinnen of Finland's VTT technical research centre. What it requires is the appropriate approach. "Look at the 1600 MW nuclear plant with a single generator being built in Finland," she said. "For this we had to increase generating reserves, reinforce the grid, build a connector from Finland to Sweden and reinforce the grid in Sweden. But with all these costs, we don't talk about integration costs -- all this is done because we want to get the nuclear power to the market."

The conference, organised by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) and supported by the European Commission's Directorate General of Energy and Transport and the organisation of European Transmission System Operators (ETSO), brought together a strong mix of policy makers, hands-on transmission system operators and wind sector companies. The first main message was delivered by EWEA president Arthouros Zervos: over the past decade, wind power has been the most favoured technology for new generation after gas across the EU's pre-enlargement member countries. But while the political battle for stimulating investment in wind power in the EU is all but won, investment in infrastructure and engineering is lagging behind.

Political pep talk

EWEA projects that Europe's current installed wind capacity of around 45 GW, will grow to 80 GW by 2010, 180 GW by 2020 and 300 GW by 2030, half of it offshore. Andris Piebalgs, the EU's energy Commissioner, noted the expected growth. "This conference is taking place at the right time and place to address all the challenges," he said. But he felt compelled to put wind power into context, pointing to the massive investment needed to get more gas from Gasprom in Russia. "You have to be ambitious to answer the challenges," he said.

Nonetheless, Piebalgs' talk revealed the importance of wind energy in the energy directorate's objectives of preventing climate change, creating jobs, making industry competitive, and securing energy supply. "None of these objectives can be achieved without increased use of renewable energies, where wind will have a particular role to play," he said. With one-third of EU countries still not giving sufficient support to wind energy, he identified the main causes of slower than wished for development as delays in wind plant and infrastructure authorisation, unfair grid conditions and slow reinforcement and extension of the grid. "A strong, liberalised and efficient EU energy market is a precondition for wind market development," he said.

The EU review may speed the route to achieving truly independent transmission system operators that are no longer the backroom lackeys of their sister generation and marketing companies. Piebalgs described as "not acceptable" a situation in some European countries where a potential renewable energy investor or producer is sent to the incumbent dominant generator to ask for grid access. ETSO appears to be aware that things have to change. The organisation's president, Daniel Dobbeni, also president of Belgian transmission systems operator (TSO) Elia, said: "It is our duty as TSOs to help the evolution of systems for the future. For the energy mix of the future and where it is located, we must design the network accordingly. We need the energy mix in Europe from hydro in Scandinavia to wind energy in Spain."

More regulation

But while pleased by ETSO's cooperation with EWEA, Christian Kjaer, the wind lobby group's head, stressed: "The strategic energy review should bring complete ownership unbundling of the electricity networks from the generation and power marketing operations; I know the Commission wants this but it is very difficult." A European electricity regulator is needed to oversee matters, said Kjaer.

Ian Mays, CEO of UK wind project developer Renewable Energy Systems, also said regulation was essential "If we are going to get a contribution from wind energy exceeding 30%, the answer is we need to harness wind where it exists. This needs huge investment; we can't rely on market forces, it's going to need regulation," he said. To achieve Mays' vision requires Europe-wide coordination of wind development, pointed out Bart Ummels from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. Forecasting of wind power station output must be improved, "gate closure" time for offering power to the market at the different energy exchanges must be reduced and more cross-border cooperation on power balancing is required, he said.

Indeed, good interconnectors between countries make it easier to work with higher wind penetration, said Gitte Agersbek, market design specialist at Energinet, the Danish TSO. She cited the combination of Danish wind energy with hydro generation in the rest of Scandinavia. "There are a lot of hours when the price of Danish wind power goes to zero, especially in recent months, due to generation in excess of market needs. However, this is partly due to one of three connectors to Norway, the Skagerrak 3, being out of operation, she said. The problem, caused by a transformer failure, should be rectified by mid-December.

Boosting interconnector capacity is hindered at the policy level, said Wolfgang Kerner, from the Trans-European Networks policy office at the European Commission. He reported on the "priority electricity network interconnection" plan that his department is preparing for the EU's Energy Review, adding several sobering remarks. "It has been almost impossible to construct critical infrastructure. You hear that the TSOs have no interest: we found the member states did not hold themselves responsible for progress." But growing dependence on energy imports will change public opinion and motivation, he says. "We must create a strong link between guidelines and implementation. We may suggest a regional network platform involving all TSOs; and we still have to decide if we need a very strong top-down approach or discussion with member states. These are our ideas."

More grid capacity

Joachim Nick-Leptin of the German federal environment ministry stressed that more grid capacity was needed to achieve the greater efficiency that will cut costs and pollution. "There should be optimisation before reinforcement, and reinforcement before expansion," he said. He praised E.ON Netz' experiment in dynamic management of grid capacity in northern Germany, where constant monitoring of transmission wire temperatures allows for their capacity limits to be raised in cool weather (Windpower Monthly, October 2006). While E.ON says daily capacity can be increased by up to 50%, the ministry says up to a 100% increase may be possible. Dynamic management of the wires may be applicable to not only the 110 kV network, but also to the highest voltage level of 380 kV, reported Nick-Leptin.

He further described Germany's new infrastructure acceleration law, probably to take effect from the start of next year, as "an entirely new chapter in German energy supply that should substantially reduce costs and also allow a better bundling of lines for wind power." The law introduces measures to speed transmission cable planning and places responsibility for building offshore cables to connect wind plant to shore to the nearest transmission system operator. The costs are to be spread evenly among all four German TSOs and then passed on to customers as a component of network usage charges.

Offshore wind

Demonstrating how long the road to wind energy integration is, particularly integration of offshore wind, Imar Doornbos, senior official for energy production at the Dutch economics ministry, reported on a series of policy workshops on offshore wind energy, which began in Egmond, the Netherlands, back in 2004. After listing the various efforts underway in a number of member states and by different organisations, he stressed his "conviction" that an Offshore Action Plan from the European Commission "could help further the international co-operation needed for large scale development of offshore wind energy." Somewhat controversially, a proposal for an offshore "super grid" linking wind plant in the North Sea, Atlantic and the Mediterranean is being promoted by Airtricity, an international wind project developer based in Ireland. Airtricity head Eddie O'Connor once again presented the concept in Brussels. But for the time being at least, national, shorter term interests are prevailing, resulting in a pragmatic, if piecemeal, approach to getting offshore wind to the market.

John Overton from the UK's Department of trade and Industry admitted that when the second round of bidding for offshore wind for the UK was conceived, following the first round of demonstration projects, "there was an expectation of an interconnected offshore grid, similar to onshore, connecting up [round two] projects and possible future rounds of wave and tidal projects, a kind of super grid forerunner." But in practice, as in Germany, the early shape of the offshore grid connections are radial generator spurs from the main onshore network -- the "porcupine model." Nevertheless, the concept of a super grid linking wind projects in international European waters is "very much in line with our goal to integrate national EU energy markets by removing barriers to the freer flow of energy around Europe," said Overton.

Missed opportunities

Provisional plans at power major Vattenfall for a Sweden-Germany undersea cable connection, which would take on board the power from some or all of the proposed Krieger's Flak offshore stations, could become the start of a super grid in the Baltic Sea. An investment decision on the three Krieger's Flak wind projects -- for a combined total of 640 MW in Swedish, German and Danish waters (Windpower Monthly, October 2006) -- is due in 2008, said Vattenfall's Göran Dandanell. Construction of the huge development is likely to take place only gradually between 2010 to 2014 "because we don't want to ruin the Swedish support system based on green certificates that wouldn't tolerate 640 MW coming online in one year," he remarked.

Meantime, opportunities may be being missed. Bo Nomark of the power systems business area of ABB Power Technologies in Sweden pointed to the 580 kilometre long, 700 MW Norway-Holland cable that is planned by Statnett, the Norwegian TSO, and TenneT, its Dutch counterpart, but which is not being designed to take offshore wind on board. The project, costing around EUR 550 million, is to be commissioned next year.

Similarly, there are first indications from Norwegian press reports that Norwegian utilities Lyse Kraft and Agder Energie are working with Switzerland's EGL and Germany's EWE on a preliminary study for a new 1 GW transmission cable between Kristiansand in Norway and Wilhelmshaven on the German coast, forming a direct link across the southern Baltic Sea. But this, too, appears to be aimed at boosting the market for electricity trade and not to pick up offshore wind power en route.