Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Revolution in the air and sea

Something truly revolutionary is taking place in the European Union and it is barely raising an eyebrow here in the United States. The planning and implementation of Airtricity's offshore wind-powered "Supergrid" is about as technologically bold a project as you're likely to find anywhere in the world. If it succeeds as planned it will demonstrate the viability and reliability of offshore wind. Moreover, it is proving to be a catalyst for an extraordinary level of international cooperation and coordination. I'm not sure if this proposal should be called revolutionary or disruptive.

Maybe it's both. (GW)

The European Offshore Supergrid: A Vision for Creating a More Powerful Europe

By Dr. Eddie O’Connor
WindTech International
January/February 2007

Airtricity is proposing the development of the Super grid. This project consists of a series of interconnected offshore wind farms throughout the seas of Europe. It would be commonly owned by all European states, with the wind farms dispersed across a wide geographic area, ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and Atlantic. This broad arrangement could smooth out any intermittency of supply by capturing the wind and transmitting power from one end of the grid to the other to feed into national grids. In the event of the wind not blowing, it would also allow for the movement of brown (non-renewable) power, putting in place an infrastructure for an energy trading system. Super grid would be implemented in stages; the first being an offshore wind farm in the North Sea called the 10GW Foundation Project. It would demonstrate the project's feasibility by interconnecting the markets of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany and create economies of scale.

European fossil fuel supplies are diminishing and becoming concentrated in fewer locations. By 2025, all natural gas in Europe will be sourced in Russia and supplied through lines across the continent. According to the Stern Report, 65% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2000 were energy related. There is no unified European energy policy, only diffuse national policies.


These facts suggest broader energy-related problems for Europe: security of supply and climate change. Airtricity maintains that to obtain a sustainable future, Europe must improve in three areas: the decarbonisation of energy, securing control over its energy supply, and better interconnection between countries.

Supergrid is designed to maximize these three elements and create a situation whereby transcontinental energy policy can be better coordinated. Powered by wind, Supergrid would provide carbon-free energy. The wind belongs only to the countries over which it blows, thus the fuel would be entirely European. The project would interconnect all of the continent's energy markets.

Operating as a meshed system, it would allow for the transfer of energy between countries. Unified energy policy is difficult to enact without a physical infrastructure in place and the project aims to remedy this.


The Supergrid could serve as the base load for a carbon-free energy system. It would not be subject to traditional intermittency of supply issues. Located in the North Sea, the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, it would span a broad enough area that it would capture the wind off the shores of Europe. The European continent operates almost as a unified meteorological system. For every area of low pressure there is always a corresponding area of high pressure, sometimes hundreds of kilometers apart. Wind records of the last 40 years confirm this and show that some of the world's better wind resources reside offshore in Europe.

This resource could potentially be captured by a network across a large enough area. If sufficiently interconnected, it could permit the free movement of energy throughout Europe. The Supergrid is designed to achieve this outcome.


Supergrid requires a number of conditions for its implementation. The first, due to the international character of the project, is the cooperation of European governments, both national and supra national. There is a need to create a regulatory and political environment conducive to the development of offshore wind and increased interconnectivity between countries. Second, there is a need to work with like-minded and credible partners at each stage of the project's development. Airtricity already has ABB on board, and they will provide the transmission technology for the Supergrid.

Airtricity has a history of pursuing offshore projects in this vein, having worked with GE on its project near Arklow in Ireland and with Fluor on its upcoming Greater Gabbard project in the Thames Estuary. Airtricity intends to build the Supergrid in a staged process, the first being a demonstration stage aimed at proving the feasibility of the project. This is termed the lOGW Foundation Project.

The 10GW Foundation Proiect

The 10GW Foundation Project is an offshore wind farm that would be located in the North Sea, interconnecting the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. It would be the largest offshore wind park in the world, with each turbine capable of generating 5MW of electricity.

The turbines would be rooted to the sea floor with the transmission cabling running along the seabed. The project would link the markets of the three countries involved. It would not only demonstrate the feasibility of the Supergrid but it would give critical mass to the further development of core technologies and lead to economies of scale. The turbines would measure approximately 100 metres to the hub (above water) with a blade diameter of approximately 115 metres. The wind farm would have a capacity factor of 40%, which would increase once more stages of the Supergrid came on-line. This section of the project alone could provide power to 6.25 million homes and reduce carbon emissions by 30 million tonnes. Airtricity expects to begin construction in 2011 and to have the project operational by 2017.


The Supergrid is based on two technologies: offshore wind and ABB's HVDC (high voltage direct current) Light. Offshore wind is heading into its adolescence. Airtricity has built a wind farm near Arklow off the coast of Ireland, is intent on doing so in the Thames Estuary, and is developing two sites off the coast of the Netherlands and Germany.

The latter three sites will be large sites, in the region of 280-500MW, and present a stepping-stone to the Foundation Project. The transmission technology, HVDC Light, possesses enormous flexibility. It can operate in the meshed configuration required for the Supergrid so countries can trade power. It is thinner than conventional wiring, being only 95mm in width compared to traditional dimensions of 15-20cm. Once a network is created, power will always circulate on the grid. It will have a 'plug and play' aspect: it could accommodate other power sources without building an enormous supporting infrastructure.


The lOGW Foundation Project has an estimated cost of € 27.5 billion. This is calculated on the basis of a capital expenditure price of € 2.5 million per megawatt installed and a grid connection fee of € 2.5 billion. Airtricity proposes to raise these funds in the following way: 25% from equity fundraising, and the remaining 75% from investment banks in debt risk at a rate of 7.0%. The estimate of the energy prices is € 108/MWh for the first 25 years and € 63/MWh for the following 25 years.


The primary challenges faced are threefold: political, regulatory and physical. The political and regulatory issues are intertwined. The l0GW Foundation Project is the first project intended to supply power simultaneously to three different national electricity systems. This poses the problem of operating in three different regulatory environments.

It requires support at European and national levels. Undertakings are required to remove long-term regulatory and political risk from the project. If Europe recognizes the challenges it faces and realizes the potential of the Supergrid then all that is required would be some joined-up thinking. By emphasising the policy elements conducive to this project's development, the national governments and European institutions could ease any regulatory roadblocks. The physical challenges lie in the construction side. Building offshore will require further nearshore deployment so as to facilitate a learning process.

Progress thus Far

Airtricity is now sourcing suitable sites for the Supergrid in the North Sea. In terms of wining regulatory and political support, the project is already well known across the EU institutions and in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. I met Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, and discussed Supergrid. In the recent debates in the Bundestag on the recent Infrastructure Acceleration Planning Act, Supergrid was mentioned by German parliamentarians. This legislation places the cost of extending the grid onto the big utilities, something that is advantageous to offshore wind. Airtricity is working on the development of offshore sites in the three markets of the Foundation Project. Airtricity expects to receive consent on the Greater Gabbard site in the Thames Estuary soon, and has recently announced plans to develop two offshore sites in Germany and the Netherlands. The construction of these will serve as a learning process for the 10GW Foundation Project.

Biography of the Author

Eddie O'Connor is CEO and founder of Airtricity. He was previously appointed Managing Director of Bord na Mona and is Secretary of the European Wind Energy Association. He holds a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering, a Masters in Industrial Engineering and an honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from the International Management Centres, Europe.


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