03 May 2017

Powering the future: could Europe go dark?

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A recent night-time blackout in the de-facto European capital of Brussels raised questions about the robustness of our energy supplies. The power production sector is facing changing demands, while also coming under huge pressure to integrate more renewable sources. So, can we expect the lights to go out more often in the future?

February’s blackout in Brussels left neighbourhoods in darkness, streets lit only by headlights and torches. You may be left thinking it was the symptom of a sick system. Not so, says Belgian transmission system operator Elia. “The power outage in Schaerbeek was caused by a short circuit in one of our high-voltage sub-stations. All measures have been put in place to prevent any recurrence,” says Elia spokeswoman Kathleen Iwens. “The Belgian high voltage grid has a reliability percentage of 99.999%.”

Other voices in Europe’s power industry say there will always be a risk of a blackout, because of efforts to keep bills down for customers. “Of course, we can build power systems that are working 100 percent of the time, but then the cost would be beyond what consumers are probably willing to pay. So, it’s always a balance between the cost of such a power system and the risks of a blackout from time to time,” explains Sonja Berlijn, Research and Development Director at Statnett, a Norwegian state enterprise responsible for the transmission and distribution of high-voltage electricity. “We’re not having more blackouts than we did before, it’s been stable for a very long period of time,” she adds.

But Europe’s energy sector can’t stand still as it looks to meet future supply needs. And, with sights set on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s expected to become the engine for a low-carbon economy.

Norway is a leader in renewable energy, with around 99 percent of its generation said to come from such sources – largely hydropower. Statnett will, during the next five years, invest approximately five billion euros in power lines, subsea cables and sub stations - refurbishment and new constructions - to meet the evolving demands. “So, to be able to connect new industry and the new power plants, the electricity will flow in a different way in the network. We’ll need overhead lines to have a stable network and to transmit all this power or energy from one place to another,” says Berlijn.

Both Elia and Statnett are collaborating with the European Best Paths project, which aims to help develop and deploy new technologies to help smooth the wider integration of renewable energy in the future.

By 2050, most of Europe’s needs are expected to be met by green sources. Transmission grids will have to be up to the job of transporting large quantities of wind and solar-generated power and integrating it into micro grids.

But the intermittent nature of these energy sources, and their geography, present some major challenges. “The increase of renewable energy, with fluctuating production levels and partly decentral production, has made the electricity system much more complex to manage,” explains Kathleen Iwens from Elia. “More and more players are involved, a growing number of elements determine if the system will remain in balance or not.”

Iwens continues: “Further market integration at European level will be necessary, and a strengthening of our cross-border capacities, to be able to get cheap renewable energy anywhere in Europe. Also, the grid infrastructure needs to be strengthened to meet these increasingly fluctuating energy levels. Elia is implementing the largest investment programme in its history: 2.5 billion euros in Belgium in the coming five years, dedicated in large part to building interconnections and making sure that renewable sources can get access to the grid.”

Statnett, meanwhile, is creating two new international interconnectors: one to Germany, due to operational in 2020; and the other, to the UK, should be ready in 2021.

“The EU has a target for additional interconnection and will offer financial and administrative help where interconnection is lacking. That should help build links where there are bottlenecks and this is welcome,” says Janet Wood, Editor of the UK-based New Power online energy information and data source.

Wood believes that accommodating the increasing proportion of renewables in the energy mix has so far has been one of the industry’s “great success stories.” But she warns, “as the proportion of renewables increases, there will be more to be done to make sure the system can remain within technical parameters at least cost to consumers.”

Minimising electricity bills, and winning support for more power lines – it seems the green transition won’t be a straightforward sell to Europe’s consumers, even though there’s a growing hunger for renewable energy.

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