A Bridge to the Future of Energy: The European Super-Grid

As we move farther into the twenty-first century, we are making notable progress toward utilizing new sources of energy, moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels.  We’ve designed electric cars that are viable competitors with traditional cars, and hydrogen-powered cars are just around the corner.  
We need to be thinking big, though, in terms of renewable sources of power, such as wind and solar.  Instead of each state vying for itself in developing, transmitting, and using these renewable sources, we need to think about how we can transfer the energy across state lines and across the country in a much more efficient way than we transfer electricity now.
In terms of innovation and sharing renewable power, Europe has the right idea.  The European Union (EU) plans to build a super-grid, a system that will connect much of Europe’s renewable sources of energy.
To indicate that this idea is indeed going forward, several of the leaders in Europe signed the Northsea Countries Offshore Grid Initiative Memorandum of Understanding in December of 2010.  Those who have signed this document indicate that they share a common goal of becoming a more sustainable economy, understand the amount of investment involved, will facilitate the creation of offshore and onshore grids, and will together tackle barriers to the system’s development.  Specific countries involved are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.
The benefit of such a system of sharing will be that each region’s renewable energy will be available for others to use.  So, the wind power generated in the waters surrounding the U.K. could be transferred to other countries to use; likewise, the solar power generated in France could be shared with its neighbors.
The super-grid will be set up like any electricity sharing system, with cables, routers, and switching stations.  However, it will use new technology to transfer the energy more efficiently over long distances. AC (alternating current) power is how we usually transfer and use electricity.  But AC power loses much of its charge when it travels long distances.   So, the super-grid would use HVDC (high voltage direct current) cables to transfer the power long distances.
The process would look like this: energy would be harvested from a wind farm in AC form.  Then, it will be transferred to a super-node, which is basically an energy collection station.  This super-node would convert the AC power to DC (direct current) power, which is able to travel great distances much more efficiently than AC power.  Using HVDC cables, the energy will be transferred to its destination, and then converted back to AC form in order to be used by consumers.
The idea is innovative and vast in scope, but the European Commissioner himself said, it is “not a dream.”  The U.K. already has 2.45 GW (gigawatts) of interconnector cables available, with plans to increase that number to 6.5 in order to link it to the rest of Europe.
One obstacle that the EU must still overcome is who will be responsible for the operations and upkeep of the grid.  One possibility is the “merchant model,” which allows private companies to own specific parts of the grid’s infrastructure.  Another option could be that each country is responsible for the parts of the grid within its borders.  In either of these instances, certain groups could possess a great deal of influence over each other by having control of a part of the grid, which is probably not ideal.  However, if companies were allowed to own and operate parts of the grid, their interest in capital would hopefully fuel their levels of responsibility for its upkeep.
In any case, the fact that such a large group of diverse people is coming together to find real solutions to real environmental problems should be an inspiration to the U.S.  By following the European super-grid model, we could provide clean energy for our entire country and solidify our commitment to a sustainable future.

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