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PARIS, Dec 3 2010 (IPS) - The electricity grid in Europe is in desperate need of an IQ boost.
Taking a cue from the proliferation of “smart” technology – smart phones, smart cars, smart weapons – the EU electricity grid will soon undergo a process of modernisation to replace the current “dumb” system with a “smart” one, in the words of Eicke Weber, an expert on solar energy at the German Frauenhofer Gesellschaft, the leading state-owned German institute on scientific research.
The new energy plan was adopted Nov. 17 by the European Commission. A report titled ‘Energy infrastructure priorities for 2020 and beyond – A Blueprint for an integrated European energy network’ was presented by EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Ottinger.
The plan calls for investment of about a trillion euros in the next ten years “to meet energy policy objectives and climate goals” that will reduce emissions known to contribute to climate change, and to improve energy efficiency.
Half of the investment – about 500 billion euros – will be directed towards “networks, including electricity and gas distribution and transmission, storage, and smart grids,” the report says.
According to official figures, the energy sector is currently responsible for producing more than 80 percent of total greenhouse gases emissions (GHG) in the EU. To reduce this number and boost energy efficiency, the new plan requires that renewable sources of energy must constitute 20 percent of the region’s overall energy consumption and that regional GHG emissions must be reduced by 20 percent.
The current national grids constitute a major obstacle to such objectives.
At present, EU energy grids are seen as insufficient and inflexible, hindering the efficient use of carbon-free energy sources, such as wind and the sun, and instead relying on environmentally questionable energy sources, such as coal and nuclear power.
“The EU pays the price for its outdated and poorly interconnected energy infrastructure,” stated Ottinger’s report. “In January 2009, solutions to the gas disruptions in Eastern Europe were hindered by a lack of reverse flow options and inadequate interconnection and storage infrastructures.”
The report added that the rapid development of offshore wind electricity generation in the North and Baltic Sea regions is hampered by insufficient grid connections, both off- and onshore.
Unless the EU immediately invests in smart, effective, and competitive energy networks, the report warned, the risk and cost of disruption and waste will increase.
“A well interconnected and smart grid including large-scale storage (would substantially reduce) the cost of renewable deployment…as the greatest efficiencies can be made on a pan-European scale,” it said.
Similar calls for a modern, pan-European electricity smart grid have been made by environmental and energy experts across the EU.
Eike Weber told IPS in Nov 2009, “Today’s grid works in one way only – electricity flows from giant power plants to consumers. In the near future, however, electricity will be generated in small plants and it will flow in both directions – from generators to consumers and back. It will be consumed when it is the cheapest, and can be stored.
“To manage this changing landscape of electricity supply, and at the same time solve the challenge of climate change, we need smart grids,” Weber said.
The smart grid will use digital technology to monitor electricity flowing into the grid while controlling consumer demand. Energy to household appliances will be limited to save energy, reduce costs, and increase supply reliability.
In addition, the smart grid will use superconductive lines to increase the efficiency of transmissions and improve the capacity of the system to store electricity that is not being consumed in order to deliver it at periods of peak demand.
But the day when energy is controlled by the smart grid may be a long time coming, despite adoption of the new plan.
“The gap (in the grid) is enormous,” Mathias Kurth, director of the German Federal Network Agency, the regulatory office for electricity, gas, telecommunications, post and railway markets, told IPS.
Kurth called the need for a modern, smart grid “the crucial factor” in European energy policy. Without it, he warned, citizens will be forced to face “financial disaster”.
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