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Renewing the Globe? Europe Leads the Way in Energy Alternatives

(Released April 2012)

podcast link 
  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations





From North Africa to Scotland:
The Quest for a Pan-European Grid


If Europe is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 without dramatically increasing its use of nuclear energy, it will have to find a way to avoid intermittency problems and to get electricity where it is needed. Better energy storage is one way, through such methods as batteries, hydro storage, and compressed air; however, none of these are fully developed and available. Although “pumped-storage hydroelectric dams, mostly located in Norway” are already being used to store the energy captured by wind power (Supergrid), such methods are only part of the puzzle. A perhaps larger part would be a comprehensive grid that can quickly move energy where it’s needed. In northern Europe this means wind power, much of it from the North Sea, circulating into the heart of Europe. In the south this means solar, not only from sunny Spain but from even sunnier northern Africa. Explains one source, “an electricity supergrid could enhance the clean-power industry by connecting power sources like wind farms in Scotland and solar arrays in Spain or North Africa to the population centers of Europe” (Gardiner). A super grid across Europe may be the only way to dispatch electricity when and where it is needed. It may also be the best way to solve the problem of intermittency; since the sun is always shining somewhere and it’s always windy somewhere, a super grid can carry this energy where it’s needed.
super power grid for Europe, Middle East, and North Africa
A sketch of possible infrastructure for a sustainable supply of power to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA)

Britain, with its windy weather and offshore wind resources, has tremendous potential as a wind exporter; indeed, Scotland alone has the potential to produce seven times the energy it consumes (Supergrid). Yet, until recently, Britain was "virtually an energy island” (Gardiner), cut off from importing or exporting external sources of electricity, but that has changed. In 2010, England began “working with countries including France, Germany, Norway and Sweden to negotiate the North Sea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative, a planned network of underwater cables that would connect offshore wind farms and other power sources to nearby countries” (Gardiner). This requires switching from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), which can travel further with less electricity lost. The whole project could cost some 80 billion euros by 2030; however, 15 billion would be saved if wind farm connections are clustered (Supergrid). The potential benefits are tremendous; by 2020 European offshore wind could increase tenfold (Energy: Offshore Wind). Meanwhile, in 2011, England began operating the BritNed cable, “the first direct current electricity link from the UK to another country in 25 years” (Carrington).

The wind’s old rival, the sun, has great potential to complete Europe’s renewable picture in the south. According to one estimate, “it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts to meet all of Europe's energy needs” (Proposed 50 Billion). Furthermore, northern Africa has considerably higher sunlight intensity even than southern Europe, with far less seasonal variation (Mediterranean Solar Plan). According to another estimate, north African solar panels could generate up to three times as much electricity as northern Europe (Proposed 50 Billion). The German investment in solar will quickly be overshadowed (or is that over-sunned?).

In Europe’s south, plans continue apace. The Mediterranean Solar Plan was launched in 2008, with plans to develop 20 GW of new renewable generation by 2020 (ENPI). Partners include Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Egypt (European Commission: Mediterranean). A related plan is the Desertec initiative, based upon a 2009 memorandum, using German expertise to harness solar energy from North Africa (Renewable Energy World; Mediterranean Solar Plan). Indeed, scientists estimate that by 2050 renewables from north Africa “could produce 100 GW, more than the combined electricity output from all sources in the UK” (Proposed 50 Billion), of which at least half is likely to go to Europe.

The costs of new renewable installations plus a new grid will be high, running in the hundreds of billions over the next few decades (Proposed 50 Billion; Gardiner). A financially shaky Europe will find it difficult to meet the challenge. However, the results, a dependable stream of clean energy to all corners of Europe, would be well worth it. Yet, even should Europe find the money and political will, this is just part of the picture. As the Energy Roadmap explains, “Europe cannot alone achieve global decarbonisation. . . . there will be a growing need for closer integration with neighbouring countries and regions” (Energy Roadmap). Eventually, the entire globe would need to follow Europe. Otherwise, energy destabilization and environmental devastation will continue apace, and Europe’s effort, money, and leadership will have been largely wasted.

© 2012, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. Statistics on EU energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; the European Commission has put forward a package of proposals on energy policy and how to tackle climate change.
    Taken from ProQuest's eLibrary
    Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

  2. Cars and trucks on a highway drive past a windpark where wind turbines spin to produce electricity on August 19, 2010 near Proesitz, Germany. Germany is investing heavily in renewable energy production, including wind power and solar, and is seeking to produce 30% of its electricity nationwide with renewables by 2020.
    Taken from ProQuest's eLibrary
    Sean Gallup/Getty Images

  3. Photovoltaic cells in use on top of a building in Berlin.
    Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

  4. Pelamis Wave Energy Converter on site at the European Marine Energy Test Centre (EMEC) located off the Orkney Islands in Scotland.
    Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

  5. A sketch of possible infrastructure for a sustainable supply of power to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA).
    Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

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  11. ENPI Info Center. The Mediterranean Solar Plan: Working Together to Meet the Energy Challenge. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

  12. European Biomass Industry Association. About Biomass. 2007. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

  13. European Commission. Austria: Renewable Energy Factsheet. 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

  14. European Commission. Mediterranean Solar Plan Strategy Paper. Web. 3 Mar. 2012

  15. European Commission, Eurostat. Renewable Energy Statistics. Nov. 2011. Web. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

  16. Europe's Onshore and Offshore Wind Energy Potential: An Assessment of Environmental and Economic Constraints. European Environment Agency. 2009. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.

  17. Fuhrmans, Vanessa. "German Nuclear Exit Hurts Green Goals." Wall Street Journal (Online). 14 Jun. 2011: n/a. eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  18. Gardiner, Beth. "An Energy Supergrid for Europe Faces Big Obstacles." New York Times. 17 Jan. 2012: B6. eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  19. GWEC: Global Wind Energy Council. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

  20. Key Figures. European Commission: Market Observatory for Energy. June 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.

  21. "Mediterranean solar plan: A technological laboratory." Europe Information. 24 Nov. 2011 eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  22. Murti, Mohan. “Bright Prospects for Solar Power in Europe.” The Hindu Business Line. 2 Jun. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.

  23. Neubacher, Alexander. Spiegel Online. "Paper sees Germany's transition to renewable energy jeopardized." BBC Monitoring European. 19 Jan. 2012 eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  24. Nyheter, Dagens. "Swedish environment minister announces renewable energy objectives." BBC Monitoring European. 10 Jul. 2011: n/a. eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  25. Peel, Quentin., Gerrit Weismann. "Germany to lift green energy charge by 70%." Financial Times; London. 18 Oct. 2010: 5. eLibrary. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

  26. Photovoltaic Barometer. EuroObserv’ER. Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.

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  32. Wilkes, Justin; Jacopo Moccia & Mihaela Dragan. Wind in Power: 2011 European Statistics. European Wind Energy Association. Feb 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

  33. Zervos, Arthouros; Christine Lins and Josche Muth. Rethinking 2050: A 100% Renewable Energy Vision for the European Union. European Renewable Energy Council. April 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.