Devious casting of wind as grid villain

Looking at the transmission needs of wind in isolation is tantamount to making decisions on road building after only looking at the characteristics of bicycles while ignoring lorry and car traffic, says EWEA of a recent report by Europe's transmission system operators

Devious casting of wind as grid villain

While the European Commission grapples with the diverse views of the EU member states on its draft directive on security of electricity supply, Europe's transmission system operators have marched onto the scene waving a paper that casts wind power in the role of villain upsetting the European networks. "The extension of wind power requires a thorough re-design of the power infrastructure in Europe both on the generation side through additional need for balancing power, and on the grid side," states the Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), a Brussels-based lobby group.

"Thorough re-design" of infrastructure in 25 member states sounds like big effort and big money. Wind energy clearly has a lot to answer for in the eyes of UCTE. "Still, transmission operators will remain focused on their mission to facilitate wind energy," the organisation says brightly.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) disputes UCTE's claims. "The need for re-designing the power infrastructure does not arise exclusively due to increased use of wind, which seems to be the underlying message of the UCTE report," says EWEA. "This is tantamount to making decisions on road building after only looking at the characteristics of bicycles, ignoring lorry and car traffic," says Christian Kjær, EWEA's policy director. "The report seems to assume that grid extensions, grid reinforcement and increased back-up capacity benefit only wind power and not any other electricity generating technology," he adds.

One of the most important issues for UCTE is the cost of integrating wind power into the electricity transmission system. The organisation stresses the need for "provision of sufficient financial resources" to transmission system operators for funding investments in grid extension and for funding the additional operational expenses for balancing power.

Monopoly approach

Its approach underlines the monopoly nature of the network operations business. In stressing that system operators should be remunerated for their costs, UCTE neglects to assure consumers that all possible effort will be made to keep these costs, whether related to wind or any other energy, to a minimum. In Germany, recommendations by such impressive entities as the monopolies commission, the electricity exchange EEX, the Green party and many electricity traders for a merging of the four transmission system operator areas into one to reduce the costs of balancing power, also for wind, have been ignored by UCTE. The monopolies' commission remarks that most of the balancing power costs of about EUR 1 billion a year are billed in an opaque fashion to network users -- a lucrative business that transmission system operators seem not keen to alter.

Meantime, however, while ignoring these findings, UCTE has no qualms about blithely applying the specifics of the particular German experience of operating large volumes of wind power in low winds, to the whole of Europe, including much windier countries.

UCTE warns that if wind energy is given priority access to the network it could "fill up" the grid, leading to a "significant reduction of the capacity available today to European electricity traders." It does not highlight the advantages of expanding cross-border connections to broaden the market for balancing power, again not only for wind. Presumably because other interests are at stake. The auction system used to share-out transmission capacity at cross-border bottlenecks to Denmark, the Netherlands and Czech Republic secures network operators an income that would disappear once the congestion was stopped. Customer access to potentially cheaper electricity in other countries would introduce competitive pressures on price. That could ruin prices for the electricity wholesale and marketing arms of the major energy incumbents and weaken their hold on their home markets.

Method in their madness

A study by the Aachen institute of power systems and power economics in Germany speculates that political aspects may play a role since "keeping cross-border connections below optimum capacity would encourage construction of new generation capacity at home rather than imported power from abroad." The message is that by attributing the need for new cross-border links to the demands of growing wind energy, network operators can exaggerate the cost of wind, put a brake on wind growth and at the same time lessen the demand for the -- unwanted -- cross border expansion.

Work within the seven new "mini-forums" or regional electricity markets set up by the European Commission as a preliminary step to a full internal market for electricity may result in a more balanced approach to integrating wind than UCTE's first effort.