An informal grouping of companies loosely connected by a common interest has been transformed into a tangible entity with the official launch in March of Friends of the Supergrid. a new lobby organisation formed from representatives of ten powerful companies involved in the European offshore wind and cabling businesses. Among them are Siemens, Areva, Prysmian and Hochtief, but not, intriguingly, ABB, despite their involvement in earlier proposals for a supergrid. Speaking at the launch (of which a fuller account may be found on page 5), Mainstream Renewable Power’s CEO Dr Eddie O’Connor, head protagonist and originator of the idea in its present form, said, ‘The UK government has recently shown its commitment to large-scale offshore wind by announcing the development of up to 50 GW by 2020. We now need to integrate this huge resource into Europe to enable the open trade of electricity among member states.
‘The Friends of the Supergrid is uniquely placed to influence policy-makers towards creating the supergrid and ultimately changing how we generate, transmit and consume electricity for generations to come.’
So much for the ideal and the purpose. How about the reality? Analysts have been pointing out that all these concerns have a commercial interest in the outcome, but it is hard to see who else would put in the effort, if they did not. In any case, it doesn’t follow that the idea is unworkable or undesirable. Probably it is neither, despite its shaky beginnings alongside such grandiose schemes as power from space, sucking tens of gigawatts of geothermal energy from the bowels of Cornwall, or sowing dragon’s teeth. It is remarkable how quickly the Supergrid has advanced from a madly eccentric idea into an accepted feature of the future seascape.
Partly this is because it has now been accepted by the EU and some national governments as being worthy of notice. (In fact the European Commission too is due to publish its blueprint for a North Sea grid, and the European Wind Energy Association is trying to get its own plan for a dedicated offshore grid included). That is encouraging, because nothing whatsoever will be done unless immense political will can be mobilised to drive it. And partly it is because there seems a certain inevitability about it. If we are to have huge amounts of wind generation at sea, a grid to collect, distribute and smooth its output seems as natural as the land based grids we already have.
There are of course many obstacles. The technical problems seem to be soluble, although a satisfactory DC circuit breaker has yet to be designed, but there are many others. Who will put up the money, who will own the grid, operate it, regulate it? The sheer expense, at least r10 billion for the first stage, is daunting, but it is not more daunting than, say, the Great Wall of China or the Hoover Dam or even one of the larger national grid systems – in fact, less so.
A standard that is frequently mentioned is cost-effectiveness in the market. One wonders how much a market would have to be distorted by interventionism before people noticed that cost effectiveness is an illusion. At best it provides a scale to judge similar ideas. But the question is irrelevant. Anything that is essential is cost effective. One might reasonably argue that a land based alternative should be considered, but no one seems to think it would be cheaper or easier. A TSO to operate it must be found, perhaps National Grid, although a completely new body seems more likely. An organisation already exists (ENTSO-E, formerly UCTE) that might regulate it and provide the management framework.
So although it is difficult to see what existing body, except the EU itself, could undertake the building programme – no one enterprise could pay for it, no one government would venture it – is there really any insoluble problem? We must have a marine renewables grid, the technical and financial barriers, though tough, are surmountable, and there is obvious benefit to the community at large. Job done. Arise Sir Eddie.
Regrettably all the difficulties mentioned above are as nothing compared to gaining the agreement of European states about how it is to be owned and operated, and how electricity is to be traded. The political and regulatory barriers are fearsome. Some will say, impossible. If only it was as easy as that. The central problem for the SG has the same character as the central problem of the EU itself – national sovereignty. And even without the inbuilt national prejudices and individual interests of the member states to take into account, one has to remember that sooner or later one has to deal with the EU administration and civil service, bodies whose labyrinthine machinations make medieval religious convocations, endlessly debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, look like models of steely purpose and decisiveness. That is the real challenge for the Friends.