Taking a giant leap toward more and more reliable renewable power, nine European countries are joining forces with a plan to spend billions on new transmission lines connecting Norwegian hydroelectric projects, German solar arrays, British wind farms and more. This is a bold step into the future for Europe, which had its hopes for an international emissions treaty dashed during the Copenhagen climate talks last month.
So far, the agreement includes Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and the U.K., with official plans expected by the third quarter of this year. The timeline may not be rushed — with construction expected to begin sometime in the next ten years — but it represents the first holistic attempt to funnel renewable energy into Europe from disparate sources. It also puts the European Union’s goal of producing 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020 within reach.
To give you a sense of the scale, rough plans earmark $48 billion in spending for DC power cables alone. This is the core of the project — the need to install several thousand kilometers of transmission lines. DC lines are said to lose less electricity over long distances. By uniting several different types of alternative power, these lines will make it possible for German solar to keep the lights on in the U.K. when the wind isn’t blowing. Alternatively, British turbines could keep the Belgians warm when skies are gray.
When the North African solar project is complete, this new grid may be extended to take advantage of some of the most abundant solar resources on the planet. Set to have a generation capacity of 900 megawatts by 2020 (enough to power 900,000 homes), the North African installation is just the beginning in that sunny region.
While solar has stolen the spotlight in Europe, with Germany and Spain leading the global market by no small margin, Europe also has its sights set on becoming a wind powerhouse, with 100 gigawatts of offshore wind under consideration. That’s huge — 100 gigawatts could potentially power 100 million homes. On top of that, Norway is pumping 27.5 gigawatts of hydroelectric onto the continent, and its only using half its capacity. If it could only better export this energy, it could bring in a substantial amount of revenue from its neighbors.
This sounds great, but hooking such a diversity of renewables into one grid poses an enormous engineering challenge. With analysts noting that the U.K. in particular has lagged in Smart Grid development, there are some doubts that Europe has the technical leadership to expedite the transmission project. There’s a general talent shortage in Europe that needs to be turned around first.
But, if these nine Northern European countries do succeed in moving things along, this could exert pressure on both China and the U.S. to get their act together when it comes to renewables. If any region is lacking in the necessary human and natural resources (sunlight in particular), its Northern Europe. So if they can do it, there’s little excuse for everyone else to twiddle their thumbs.