Blueprint for a European supergrid -- Grand vision on paper

Plans for a new subsea power network to hook up offshore wind farms in the North Sea as part of a so-called European "supergrid" have been unveiled by the European Union's executive arm. The blueprint for a North Sea offshore grid was promised by the European Commission in its Strategic Energy Review in November. The grid would interconnect national electricity networks around the North Sea and plug in offshore wind projects.

The offshore grid is one of six infrastructure projects outlined in a green paper by the Commission for strengthening the security of EU gas and electricity supplies. With the proposed Mediterranean energy ring and an interconnection plan for countries around the Baltic Sea, the North Sea project will be one of the building blocks of a European supergrid that will see electricity from offshore wind in northern Europe and solar in North Africa and around the Mediterranean feed into the EU network, says the Commission.

The green paper also considers replacing the existing outdated funding framework for trans-European energy network development (TEN-E) to meet the EU's energy security and environmental goals. These include supplying 20% of Europe's energy from renewables by 2020. "The EU will be unable to deliver its climate and energy goals without new and improved networks," says the green paper. "Energy networks must take a more prominent place in energy policy development and implementation."

Offshore wind is crucial to meeting Europe's renewables targets, the Commission believes. It sees 30-40 times more offshore wind capacity than the current 1500 MW by 2020 -- and 100 times more by 2030. In its strategic energy review, the Commission identifies challenges that need to be tackled and what EU action needs to be taken. More cross-border cooperation is needed on offshore sites and on grid planning between states, national transmission system operators and regulators, it finds. It is also considering stepping up research and development support to "accelerate the development and market deployment of offshore wind and other marine renewables."

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) welcomes the key role assigned to offshore wind by the Commission. With its proposed blueprint for an offshore grid the Commission is addressing the key barrier to unlocking the massive potential of the resource, says EWEA's Christian Kjaer.

Investor interest in the sector is high, the association says, pointing out that 30,882 MW more capacity is planned by 2015 to add to today's 1486 MW. Nine countries -- one-third of EU member states -- now have operational offshore wind farms, up from just five 11 months ago, claims EWEA. But the offshore electricity infrastructure needs to be vastly improved and the overall electricity grid updated and reinforced, it says.

"An offshore grid and increased interconnector capacity will allow large amounts of offshore wind energy to be integrated into the electricity network, while improving the functioning of the internal electricity market," states Kjaer. "This will reduce consumer electricity prices, avoid fuel and carbon costs, create jobs and help curb Europe's increasing dependence on expensive and environmentally harmful fuel imports from unstable and unpredictable regions of the world."