Feature Report: The Long Road to a European Energy Union

4 items of content in this feature report

Going in depth

Close-up

Electrical Interconnectors: The European Commission's Targets

While waiting for the emergence of a European "super grid" spanning all countries in the European Union and beyond, the European Commission has begun to set targets to encourage interconnections between national grids with the goal of strengthening cooperation among states, creating a single electricity market and incorporating the booming renewable energies sector. 

Major interconnections between Europe's national power grids help strengthen cooperation among states and unify electricity markets. © AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA

Interconnectors between national 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... grids, which allow electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... to be transferred from one country to another, first appeared in Western Europe in the early 20th century after hydropower projects were developed in cross-border mountain ranges. Following WWII, interconnectors underwent a renaissance that continued throughout the process of European integration.

Today, Europe has the world's densest power grid coverage, with 310,000 kilometers of lines (seven times the circumference of the Earth) and more than 1,000 gigawatts of capacity (as much as the United States and China)1. Some €25 billion in investment was pledged for the 2011-2015 period, and by 2020 European grid operators will have renewed or developed 42,100 km of power lines. The long-term objective is a European "super grid" spanning 34 countries inside and outside the European Union.

In 2014, ten countries (including France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries) exported more than 10% of generated electricity each year to neighboring states. At the same time, 11 countries (including the United Kingdom and Italy) imported more than 10% of their annual consumption. France is the leading exporter2.

10% Interconnection Target for 2020

10%: The 2020 target for electrical interconnections with neighboring countries

The European Commission believes that too little progress has still been made in improving interconnections, despite their benefits3:

  • They allow countries to assist others that occasionally need electricity.
  • They enable different national electricity markets to be coupled together, thereby helping to harmonize prices.
  • They help overcome wind and solar intermittency problems by expanding the potential user base.

The Commission has set an interconnection target for each Member State corresponding to 10% of their installed production capacity by 2020, and 15% by 2030. So far, it considers that 22 Member States are on track to achieving the first target, or have already done so, but that more interconnectors are needed in some regions.

Three Examples of Energy Transfers

The following examples highlight how the rise in renewable energies have made it essential to establish a European "super grid".

  • Denmark's interconnection capacities with its neighbors are equivalent to its own installed capacityThe power generation capacity of a particular plant. It is usually expressed in megawatts (or sometimes even gigawatts).... This allows the country to manage its high levels of wind power, which accounts for a third of its total electricity generation. When there is more wind than required to meet Danish demand for electricity, the excess power is sold to neighboring Norway, Sweden and Germany. During peak consumption periods, however, Denmark imports electricity. Flows can be monitored minute by minute on the Danish grid operator's website4.
  • Spain, on the other hand, is an "electrical peninsula". It produces large amounts of solar and wind power, but struggles to pass on the surplus to the rest of Europe. In 2015, a DC interconnection running underneath the Pyrenees doubled the amount of electric power that could be transferred between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. The project represented a total investment of €700 million.
  • Germany, meanwhile, has high installed wind power capacity in the Baltic Sea region in the north, but high demand from its major industrial hubs in the south. To move the power from north to south, the country needs to build 1,800 kilometers of new lines – a goal it is far from achieving. As a result, electricity flows often push their way through neighboring countries to the east and west, such as the Czech Republic, Poland and the Netherlands, creating frequent disturbances in their grids on the way.

Taken together, Europe's power lines are long enough to make seven trips around the Earth.

Interconnectors help improve the cost-effectiveness of power grids – provided the benefits offset the construction costs. And these costs can be substantial: the Commission estimates that €40 billion will be needed to meet the 10% interconnection target. This high price tag is due both to the technical constraints of laying cables across mountains and seas, and to the reluctance of local communities to see power lines spring up in their backyards. The underground connection between France and Spain took 14 years to complete, and cost seven times more than originally budgeted.

 

Sources :

(1) ENTSO-E

(2) RTE (in French)

(3) Union française de l'Électricité (in French)

(4) Denmark's electricity flows