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Economy

Europe’s Super Grid Is Coming to the Rescue

Europe could teach America a thing or two about interconnection.

Europe.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As the invasion of Ukraine raged last year, all eyes were on Europe’s power grid. Gas prices skyrocketed, Scandinavia’s water levels fell, and France’s trusty nuclear power plants went offline. It was a test of whether the world’s most interconnected energy grid could keep the lights on under extreme stress — and Europe passed. Today, as increasingly volatile weather patterns wreak havoc on infrastructure, the grid is proving to be more important than ever.

“Climate change is going to make us rely on the grid more,” Michael Pollitt, a professor of economics at Cambridge and an expert in energy economics, told me. “It’s not just gas price effects across Europe, it’s low water years and low wind years that will have impacts everywhere.”

This summer’s extreme heat could have been the next greatest threat to the power grid following the invasion of Ukraine. But instead, the stresses posed by recent weather have shown the strength of Europe’s power grid, proving the importance of interconnection in an era of global warming.

Europe’s power grid is made up of a series of interconnected localized grids. The primary one is the continental grid, where about 15% of the continent’s energy is traded across borders every year. This grid serves 400 million consumers across 24 countries, including most of the European Union countries, plus the Balkans and Turkey. These 24 countries are also connected to several other grids: the Nordic grid, the British grid, the Irish grid, and, as of August this year, the Baltic grid. Those additions bring electricity to more than 600 million consumers. In addition, there are discussions about connecting North Africa’s power grid, and especially Morocco, which would provide a rich source of solar energy.

Each country invests in what they do best: Norway champions hydropower, France has nuclear power plants, the U.K. invests in wind turbines, Spain does solar, etc. And each one can sell the excess energy to the grid to assist other countries. When water levels are low in the summer months, Norway relies on countries like Spain, who have ample power from their solar fields. In the cloudier winter months, Norway returns the favor. There is a call for faster progress on interconnection and transmission to make this into an even more reliable “Super Grid.”

This tool provides an interactive map of the grid today, and the expected changes up until 2040.

This single market allows for an energy security not seen in the United States, which has several disconnected state or regional grids with much more limited interconnection. This not only restricts the distribution of renewable energy in the U.S., but it can lead to blackouts, most famously in Texas in 2021.

One reason that Europe’s grid has proved remarkably resilient is that mutual reliance also means mutually assured destruction.

“If a country were to reduce exports, it would reduce costs in their country,” said Pollitt, referring to fears last year that European countries would unplug from the interconnected grid to safeguard their own energy supplies. “But you barely think about that for too long before you realize it’s a nuclear option to keep prices down.”

EU countries came together to agree on a gas price cap to contain the energy crisis in December 2022. But the rise in gas prices was a powerful incentive for countries to increase their reliance on renewables. Wind and solar generated 10% more energy compared with the same period in 2021-2022, saving the region 12 billion euros in gas imports (about the same in dollars), according to Ember, an energy think tank.

“I’m very happy to see European solidarity manifest itself and be resilient even though there was some temptation to go it alone,” Kristian Ruby, the secretary general for Eurelectric, the association for the electricity sector in Europe, told me. “By standing together and doubling down on solutions, we’ve seen them keep the lights on during an extremely difficult time.”

Extreme weather is the next big hurdle for the grid to overcome. “There’s no doubt that extreme weather events are becoming a strain on electricity operators,” said Ruby. A recent report from Eurelectric says that all power systems are exposed to the effects of extreme weather, including generation, transmission, and distribution. For hydropower, low water levels are detrimental and extreme cold can cause ice and blockages. Geothermal and nuclear energy become less efficient during heat waves because they require water and cold air for cooling. Many of these plants are also vulnerable to coastal and inland flooding.

This summer in particular, the grid was put to the test. Extreme heat in Spain and Italy pushed the grid to its upper limit. Using power from places like Britain, Norway and Switzerland, Spain was able to provide the power needed. It also benefited from investments in solar panels, which supplied 20 percent more solar power than in the summer of 2022.

The grid’s strength is in its variability. “Different types of weather phenomena call for different coping strategies. Resilience is about diversity. It’s about having a mix of different things. One technology will not solve it alone,” said Ruby.

Renewable energy sources differ based on the conditions in which they are built, which can make the electricity supply more adaptable. If there’s enough interconnection to bring power from, say, where it’s sunny or windy to where it’s needed, countries are much less likely to experience blackouts during severe weather. Whereas with fossil fuel based energy like coal plants, the energy supply is concentrated and more susceptible to shocks.

Despite the success, some experts are concerned that transmission isn’t growing fast enough to handle electrification. People are buying more heat pumps and using electric vehicles, but NGO WindEurope says that the grid itself is not expanding at the same pace. Experts also say that as loads increase, electricity flows will become more complex. Ruby advocates more digitalization in order to handle these complex flows.

The EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson wrote an op-ed piece in the Financial Times this month saying that Europe must sustain a fast pace in rolling out renewables and electrifying the economy. She references the need to integrate intermittent renewable power and adapt more decentralized electricity systems. She says the emphasis needs to be on transmission and distribution grids.

The EU reduced the length of time needed for permitting electricity transmission. It also introduced new emergency legislation last year to accelerate the authorization of renewable projects.

Despite concerns about pace, experts seem generally optimistic about the EU's grid. “EU energy and climate policy are really a success story in European coordination and interdependence,” said Pollitt.

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Jesse  Chase-Lubitz profile image

Jesse Chase-Lubitz

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a climate change writer and the author of the Edifice newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, Politico, The American Prospect, and others. She recently completed an MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics, where she conducted original research into Dutch sea-level rise adaptation architecture within the Netherlands and Indonesia. Read More

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