Five reasons you should care about the European North Sea "super-grid"

Plans for a North Sea "super-grid" could be the beginning of European energy inter-dependence based on green energy. Common Weal Policy explain why it could be a historic development in energy distribution for Scotland and Europe

HERE'S the vision: Scottish wind-power lights up streets in Italy when the wind is blowing in the north, and Italian solar-power lights up streets in Scotland when the sun is shining in the south. A interconnected, inter-dependent Europe, run entirely by renewable energy, using the combination of Europe's abundant natural energy resources - wind, tidal, geothermal, hydro-electric, solar - to create a durable and sustainable energy supply that is carbon-free. The ecology of our habitat used to seamlessly power modern life. All accomplished through a European "super-grid".

Sounds good, doesn't it? Well it may be becoming closer to being a reality. The Herald reported on 20 July that the North Sea Electricity Grid project, seen as the key starting point for full European grid integration, was now a "top priority". The Investment Plan for Europe, worth PS220bn, would provide seed money with the rest coming from the private sector for the approximately third of a trillion euro project, according to the report.

Grid

The North Sea grid would allow renewable energy in Scotland to be stored in Scandinavian pump storage schemes, until demand peaked elsewhere in Europe connected to the grid. It conclusively resolves the long standing criticism of green energy that its intermittancy makes it unreliable.

Nine countries - Germany, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg - signed up to the north sea grid proposal in 2009. It's feasible that construction on the grid could begin within 18 months, with Norway also seen as crucial to the early stages of the thousands of kilometres of seabed cables that will be needed to connect the network across the North Sea.

Here's five reasons you should care about the the North Sea "super-grid".

Scotland could be a major green energy exporter

The potential for wind and tidal energy on land and offshore in Scotland is enormous. Scotland is estimated to have 25 per cent of Europe's tidal potential and 10 per cent of its wind potential. Scotland's potential for industrial scale solar farms is becoming economically viable with prices dropping fast for solar panels, with eight commercial projects given planning permission in the past year and more on the way. Scotland also has 85 per cent of the UK's hydro-electric resource. Clean energy produced more power than nuclear, coal or gas in 2014 for the first time, with plans in place to generate 100 per cent of Scotland's energy from renewables by 2020.

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Given that it will not be too long before electricity generation in Scotland through renewables is saturated, the potential for Scotland to be a major European exporter of green energy is obvious. The North Sea grid is estimated to reduce costs of wind farms on the East Coast, of which there is five new ones planned, by 25 per cent. The renewables industry in Scotland supports 11,500 jobs as of 2013, but it's likely that this could be more than doubled, with the super-grid providing the impetus for industry optimization. That's not to mention the jobs that would be created directly from laying the cables across the North Sea in creating the super-grid.

The storage capacity of Norwegian hydro-pumps means that the problem of waste - too much green energy generation at times of low demand - can be resolved. That, combined with technological developments in high voltage direct current cables which lose little energy over long distances compared to conventional pylons, can make clean energy incredibly efficient and resourceful at a continental scale.

Off-setting North Sea oil decline

With the dramatic fall in oil prices to around $50 a barrel now lasting for about 12 months, the role of North Sea oil in Scotland's strategic energy outlook is weaker than ever. This shouldn't be overstated - oil is and will continue to be for many years a major contributor to Scottish GDP. But with new investments in the industry increasingly less viable, a further boost to green energy production and distribution could offset the decline in 'black gold'.

The construction of the super-grid will boost diversification of skills from the oil sector. As Tory MEP Ian Duncan, who sits on the European Parliament's Energy Committee, has said, the grid "plays to Scotland's strengths as we have all the skills and subsea expertise needed to build and maintain such a network."

Meeting climate targets

Scotland's climate target of reducing emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 are ambitious, but can be met with an intensification of investment in the green energy sector. The super-grid could provide the impetus for this.

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Indeed, on a EU scale the target set of a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 is what has sparked a new momentum behind the North Sea super-grid project in Brussels.

Energy diversity and inter-dependence in Europe

The reliance of global energy supplies on fossil fuels in the industrial era has not only led to unsustainable levels of carbon emissions, it has also created a tremendous concentration of wealth and power. The geography of fossil fuels is spread very unevenly across the globe, leading to clustering of wealth and power in the hands of elites in countries that happen to be fossil fuel rich, often at the expense of their own populations as well as other countries.

Green energy by its nature is more evenly distributed both in economic and geographical terms. Whereas oil is a product associated with "super-profits" - profits vastly beyond the value of production - and subsequent power struggles for control of the resource, profit margins on green energy are not so steep. That's not to say that green energy cannot be used for corporate greed (as discussed more below) but the potential for a more decentralised and even distribution of power than fossil fuels is unquestionable.

The "super-grid" could create a diverse and inter-dependent energy mix in Europe, with no one source of energy more powerful than another, and no one countries control of energy greater than another. Energy inter-dependence can be a foundation in which broader economic, social, cultural and political collaboration can be built upon.

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It can also make the use of energy as a geopolitical weapon less likely. As of 2012 , the EU imported 19 per cent of its coal, 24 per cent of its oil and 29 per cent of its gas from Russia. This energy dependence has political consequences, for example in the ongoing dispute in Ukraine, where Putin has threatened to turn off the tap due to western interference in Kiev.

Politics matters: ownership and price mechanisms will be key issues going forward

The question of who controls the super-grid will be fundamental going forward as to whether it will be used to meet social need. Common Weal's energy report in 2013 advocated nationalising the Scottish grid in the event of independence, which would make investing in renewables 20 per cent cheaper, thus reducing costs for the consumer.

Indeed, in 2013 a Lords Committee made it clear that the Norwegian government was unwilling to contemplate a Norway to Scotland interconnector project if it would be privately owned at the UK side (the UK grid in Scotland is run by SSE and Scottish Power), such was the importance for the Norwegians of the grid being state-owned.

Another hurdle will be to ensure a cross-border price mechanism is in place and fair for all. The project would be unviable if energy exported from Scotland is much cheaper than that imported from Italy. Green energy in theory should rapidly reduce energy prices for customers as after start-up and maintenance costs renewables, by their nature, are essentially cost-free.

A final question is can a trans-national project of this nature be combined with be decentralised forms of energy control? There is no reason why a local community energy company powering Pitlochry could not also be connected to a grid that provides excess energy from its hydro-electric dam (see picture above) all across Europe, but the questions posed above - of ownership and price mechanisms - are both issues in this respect.

Therefore the politics of the super-grid matter: like any project of such scale, it can be used for corporate greed or social good. It's not clear on what basis the Norwegian-UK interconnector has been agreed upon or the price mechanisms going forward, but these should be key issues of concern for the Scottish Government in the development of the grid.

Pictures courtesy of Friends of the Super-Grid, xlibber , NASA Goddard Space Fligh , Jedimentat44 and CommonSpace