The European Super Grid : A solution to the EU’s energy problems

27 January 2022 /

9 min

Within the context of the European Green Deal, the electrification of the energy sector is of paramount importance. Only by substituting fossil energies for electricity will the European Union be able to reach its objective of being carbon-free by 2050. Such an ambitious project requires a significant amount of technical infrastructure to sustain it, and this is precisely what the European Commission wants to achieve through what has been unofficially defined as the “European Super Grid”. This article explains more in detail what the European Super Grid consists of, what are its main challenges and what it involves for the European Union on both the local and international level.

In a remarkable step forward, renewable energies reached and surpassed fossil fuels as the European Union’s main electricity source in 2020. According to a study carried out by the focus groups Ember and Agora Energiewende, during the year 2020 renewable power sources generated approximately 38% of the EU’s electricity, whereas fossil fuels accounted for about 37%. While this surely marked a significant stepping stone in the battle to reduce fossil fuel usage, the prized goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before 2030 is still a long way off.  

With the demand for electricity rising every year due to the electrification of significant portions of production, the European Union will need to provide European citizens and companies with increasing quantities of electricity while staving off the recourse to fossil fuels. Until now, the matter has generally been addressed by focusing on the construction of more and better renewable energy infrastructure. Nevertheless, such a course of action needs to be complemented by something else. This is because renewable forms of power production tend to lack stability, meaning they cannot provide a continuous flow of electricity to meet demand. Solar panels don’t work when the sun goes down, and eolian turbines can’t produce power when the wind stops blowing. The opposite is true as well: in some cases renewable power production may surpass demand, which would make the surplus power go to waste. This is where the European Super Grid comes into play. 

The European Super Grid: what is it exactly?

The European Super Grid is an umbrella term to define a series of projects taking place in Europe and beyond. Upon completion, these projects would result in the creation of a power network interconnecting European countries between themselves and with other regions, such as North Africa and the Middle East. The Super Grid aims at both improving energy interconnectors and creating new ones between European areas, thus increasing the capacity and quality of power transmission among countries. Although the majority of the projects are still in planning phases, many have already begun production.  

Concretely, the energy interconnectedness will allow for European states to sell their energy surpluses to other countries, and to buy others’ excesses in times of deficiency. This energy sharing is key in counterbalancing the effects of renewable energy not being a stable and reliable source of electricity. This dynamic can be better seen through an example: during the summer, the power production by solar panels in Southern European Countries increases exponentially, which can make the producing country end up with an energy surplus. Without the European Super Grid, that power produced would go to waste. Through cables and power infrastructure that same energy can be exported to other countries, for example Northern or Western European States, regions that due to a different climate are unable to fully take advantage of solar power. 

The same can happen the other way around. During the winter, wind power from turbines or hydropower from dams tend to be more reliable and abundant than solar power. Northern or Western European countries can easily produce both thanks to geographical and climate-related reasons, and as such may be able through the appropriate infrastructure to export their surpluses to countries in need. This would effectively prevent European countries from falling back on fossil fuels for energy production during periods of deficiency. 

This monumental project would be beneficial in two main ways. Economically, it is estimated that the Super Grid will make the European Union save between 12 and 40 billion euros every year. Environmentally, it would help remove fossil energy from electricity production for good. 

The Super Grid and the European Green Deal: “a match made in heaven”

Within the context of the European Green Deal, the development of a fully integrated European Grid is of great importance. With the production and use of energy accounting for approximately 75% of its carbon emissions, it is one of the main interests of the European Union to decarbonize power production in order to achieve the 2050 goal of a climate-neutral continent. The construction of an interconnected energy system is thus one of the EU’s priorities, which explains its willingness to fund most projects related to the ESG. For example the construction of the Celtic Interconnector, a series of power cables that will connect Ireland to the European grid, is currently benefiting from European funds. The European Commission aims to achieve 15% of interconnection by 2030, meaning that by then each country should possess the appropriate infrastructure to export at least 15% of the electricity produced by its power plants. Considering the numerous projects that are currently under construction, this is an achievable goal. 

But the main reason why the European Super Grid perfectly suits the needs of the Green Deal is the fact that it takes into consideration the differences in terms of energy mix of individual European countries. Many EU policies aiming at reducing carbon emissions were often criticised by Member States for not taking into consideration the disparities between countries, and consequently the difficulties that some may encounter to reach objectives that could be easily met by others. The Super Grid respects these differences, allowing countries to specialise in the types of energy production they find most fruitful. Although some broad objectives are defined, the Member-States are allowed to micromanage their specific cases as they please, having a lot of freedom to decide how to move forward. 

The geopolitical implications of the Super Grid, a path to energy independence?

The EU’s new energy policy, defined through the European Green Deal, has three objectives: sustainability, competitiveness, and most importantly, security of supply. It is a well-documented truth that the EU remains extremely dependent on imported energy. Some countries of the Baltic and Central European regions are overwhelmingly dependent on one single supplier, Russia being one of the main ones. This puts Europe in an extremely vulnerable situation, with geopolitical incidents in either supplier or transit countries being a very real possibility. For example, the Ukrainian conflict that started in 2014 heavily affected gas supply all throughout Europe, causing inflation and shortages. In a similar fashion, the partnerships with Russia have proven to be convoluted and unstable, most notably due to the participation of the European Union in NATO and the continuous political clashes with the Russian regime over human rights. 

Furthermore, with environmental crises making power supply incredibly volatile, the EU risks getting caught in troubles outside of its capabilities. The succession of energy crises that unfolded in the last few months confirm such theory: an increased global demand and a particularly cold winter skyrocketed prices for power and gas, leaving the European Union to deal with the consequences.  Within this context of geopolitical uncertainty, the European Super Grid may act as a solution by reducing the reliance on liquid gas and oil, and most importantly by increasing power production within the EU itself. This would put the European Union on the right path to becoming self-sufficient regarding power supply, and thus closer to being energetically independent. 

The implementation of the ESG would also increase European integration between Member States, creating a more interconnected and cohesive Union with the capacity to speak with one unified voice on the energy world market, on issues regarding power production, environmental crises or climate change. Diplomatically, an electrically interconnected European Union would carry more weight in the international decision-making arena, with more bargaining power and less concerns over the possibility of countries using resources as leverage in geopolitical negotiations. Furthermore, the Super Grid would not only concern the European Union per se but also its periphery, reaching countries such as Norway, Iceland and the Northern African region. This dynamic has the potential to promote the EU’s external policy objectives and values in other regions, thus increasing international cooperation.  

Still a long way to go

As previously stated, the European Super Grid is far from being completed, but numerous projects are currently being built or under active planning. As mentioned before, the Celtic connector is now under construction between Ireland and France. Other examples include the Spain-France underground electrical interconnection; the LitPol link I, an electricity link between Lithuania and Poland, and many others. Work remains to be done, but considering that the objectives for 2020 set by the European Commission were reached and those of 2030 seem within range, the hopes are high for the European Super Grid to be up and running by 2050. Current projects vary in scope, reach, funding and size, but at the end of the day they all contribute to the construction of the most extensive electricity grid the world has ever seen. 

The only issue that remains tied to the development of the project is the possibility of a climate crisis. Indeed, for the Super Grid to really start proving its benefits, a certain threshold of interconnection must be reached. Before that happens, the power produced by European renewables might not be enough to fill the need for electricity that could arise from an unforeseen climate event. In case this ever happens, countries would be forced to draw power from fossil fuels in order to keep prices from hyperinflating and retain a somewhat stable supply of electricity. Since climate crises are expected to get worse in the following years, the possibility of countries failing to completely detach themselves from fossil fuels is likely. This would effectively create a vicious cycle where continuous crises lead to more fossil fuels being used, and so forth. To successfully avoid this scenario, projects tied to the ESG need to become a top priority in the next decade in order to make the transitional phase between low to mid-levels of interconnection as short as possible.

According to statistics, Europe is already the largest internationally interconnected grid worldwide, with countries exporting significant portions of surplus power to neighboring states. But the European Union can’t allow itself to rest on the laurels of its achievements, and must push forward in order to make power-sharing the norm. The European Super Grid is not a panacea to all of the EU’s environmental problems, but it surely is a solid foundation upon which the rest of the European Climate Policies can be developed.

[This article was first published in the issue 35 of the magazine]

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