Feature Report: Power Grids

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European Interconnections

After the Second World War, European countries set up interconnections between national power grids to meet their respective energy needs. These cross-border power lines allow countries to help one another immediately in the event of an unexpected energy shortage. When a shortage occurs, European countries buy and sell electricity among themselves, exchanging between 100 to 120 TWh of power per month on average.

Europe's national power grids are increasingly interconnected, which unifies electricity markets and enables countries to help each other out in the event of power shortages. ©NASA / AFP

The electric powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... transmission grids (overhead and underground high-voltage power lines) of each European country are managed by either one or several operators: RTE in France; TenneT, Amprion and Elia in Germany; Elia in Belgium; TenneT in the Netherlands; Terna in Italy; National Grid in the United Kingdom; and REE in Spain. In all, there are more than 36 power grid managers in 27 E.U. countries and their networks handle some 3,000 TWh of power each year.

Each country has built interconnections with the power grids of neighboring countries, but their capacity is limited. For example, France has an interconnection capacity of 12 GW for exports and 8 GW for imports with six neighboring countries. In 2014, France exported 17.1% of its electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... output via these lines1.

To manage these interconnections, capacity allocation systems are in place in the E.U., but they still need to be harmonized before an internal energy market can be created, a goal that was set for 2015. These methods include long-term capacity allocation (allocated via explicit auctions), as well as day-ahead capacity allocation (allocated via implicit auctions), not to mention intraday capacity allocation. In early 2014, 14 E.U. countries launched a pilot project to create a common day-ahead capacity allocation system.

Europe's future interconnected power grid will stretch across more than 300,000 km and be used by 525 million people.

Creating a European Super Grid

In the years ahead, the E.U. wants to go beyond the bilateral exchanges described above to create a vast continental network, also known as the European super grid. The idea is for this smart, unified grid to be able to distribute electricity to countries across Europe on a needs basis, regardless of where it was generated, and harness the surplus energy generated by solar arrays in Southern Europe and wind farms in the North Sea, to create a single European power market. Non-E.U. countries, including the Baltic states, Switzerland and Norway, are participating in the project. In all, the super grid concerns 34 European countries and 525 million people supplied by 305,000 km of transmission lines.

For the European internal energy market to be completed, countries will need to become more connected with one another in the future by strengthening grids and linking up renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... facilities with new cables. Additional submarine cables will need to be laid to connect the coast with the offshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling". wind farms that are popping up in the North Sea, at a cost of €1 million per kilometer. New, more powerful interconnections also need to be installed between countries.

However, local communities may be reluctant to agree to the construction of high-voltage power lines because they find them unsightly or do not perceive the need. Moving forward, several technical constraints will also have to be overcome, such as standardizing equipment from country to country.

17.1%: The percentage of generated electricity exported by France in 2014.

The future European super grid will need to be able to adapt to demand, which will be regulated in energy users' homes by smart electricity meters capable of programming household appliances during periods of low energy use. In France, the Linky smart meter currently being rolled out will be able to program people’s dishwashers to run when demand is low, for example.

The E.U. Directive of October 2012 on energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system... stipulates that at least 80% of consumers should be equipped with smart meters by 2020.

The vast Trans-European high-voltage power lines will form the backbone of a grid extending from the North Sea down to Southern Europe.

Future European Super Grid: Outline and Objectives 

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Future European Supergrid: Outline and Objectives
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