Monday, December 6, 2010

The North Sea Supergrid

The European Union is embarking on a 20 billion Euro project to build an undersea electrical grid spanning the North Sea (click on the diagram to enlarge):

North Sea energy used to mean oil and gas. Today, production of both is waning, and the rough weather that challenged the drillers has itself become a resource. In a speech last September, Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, estimated that the winds and waves lashing the Scottish coast could generate seven times more energy than Scotland consumes. Other countries around the North Sea hold similar potential. The problem is getting all that power from the windy edge of Europe to its populous, energy-hungry heart — the region roughly bounded by London, Berlin and Milan. "What we need above all is an efficient transmission system," Salmond says. "And the most efficient one would be a grid built across the North Sea."

On 3 December, ten northern European nations are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding spelling out how they'll build an undersea electricity 'supergrid'. The project is a major engineering and political challenge, comparable in scope, scale and ambition to the rush for oil and gas in the same waters 40 years ago. Thousands of kilometres of undersea cable would be laid, at a cost of at least €1 million (US$1.4 million) per kilometre. Unlike onshore grids, which operate on alternating current (a.c.), the subsea grid would use direct current (d.c.) and would therefore require new types of offshore and onshore substations, control systems, converters and circuit breakers in a set of projects costing billions of dollars.
On the long term horizon is an even more ambitious project to built a grid spanning the Mediterranean Sea, to bring solar and wind power from the Sahara to Europe.

If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels, these are the kind of investments that have to be made.

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