A significant increase in the legal powers of the European Commission to manage cross-border electricity supplies in the European Union (EU) could be one of the consequences of November’s blackout which cut power to around 10 million people in Germany and six other countries. The 25 EU member states are committed to introducing open markets for gas and electricity by July 2008, though many have strong political reservations and some have yet to implement EU energy liberalisation directives: the latest assessment from the Commission is awaited. However, justifying new action by means of the latest blackouts, Brussels has beefed up its existing cross-border electricity purchase guidelines by issuing formal, but non-binding, guidelines which it said would allow “different products to be traded with different durations from yearly down to intra-day timeframes.” The Commission said the new system required “improved co-operation between transmission system operators (TSOs) to allocate cross-border flows and manage bottlenecks in the transmission network”.

Furthermore, in January, as part of the major strategic review of energy policy in the EU, Brussels will propose measures to permit TSOs to work in legally established groups of neighbouring EU countries and replace the present voluntary co-operation between them with legally binding operational rules.

Ferran Tarradellos, the Commission’s energy spokesman, said it was “possible” that the market could be put in shape without legally binding measures “provided that existing legislation is enough”. But there were people, notably in industry and other major energy using organisations “who consider that this won’t be enough and that new legislation is necessary,” he said.

There seems little doubt however that a central role for Brussels, backed by legal cross-border trading regulations, is not considered at all necessary by power and transmission companies. Carlo Degli Esposti, technical and economical adviser to the European Transmissions System Operator (ETSO) told Modern Power Systems that “already now the system is working as a single machine and working quite well.” In last month’s blackout the grid operated on a European scale with a set of national-based procedures which rose to a maximum loss of load equal to ten million users, he said. “Given that the European population is about 450 million then that ratio is not bad at all compared to 50 of 450 million which could have been the case if each national system had no reacted in the way it did,” he said, “so technically speaking the co-operation is already there.”

In the UK Chris Lock, a spokesman for energy regulator OFGEM, said there was a need for greater market integration between the EU member states. However while the recent blackouts were quite significant “they were managed in a way that reduced their impact,” he said.

The Commission will frame its proposals early next year on the basis, among other things, of a country-by-country study of the energy set-up in the EU. Brussels has long been at loggerheads with EU member government over this aspect of energy policy and will be eager to expand its powers in this sector. It seems likely to win considerable new support from power consumers in general following the latest blackouts.