Powering Europe ? Wind energy and the electricity grid

Last week the European Commission said: “The EU pays the price for its outdated and poorly interconnected energy infrastructure”. Today the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) publishes a new report with a vision for a modern renewable energy power system, which sets out how the grid can integrate increasing amounts of wind energy.

‘Powering Europe’, launched today at the GRIDS 2010 conference and exhibition in Berlin organised by EWEA, argues there are no major technical barriers – but there are major economic benefits – to integrating large amounts of fuel- and pollution-free wind energy into Europe’s electricity grid.
The new report identifies infrastructure and markets as the two key barriers to hugely increasing the amount of wind power in Europe’s electricity supply.

In order to deliver the onshore and offshore wind energy from where it is produced to where it will be consumed, Europe needs:
• extended, upgraded and better connected grids,
• fair and effective competition in a truly internal European market in electricity.

The economic benefits of creating a single market in electricity and improve the infrastructure are substantial, according to the new EWEA report. The benefits of a better interconnected grid include a €1,500 million yearly reduction in total operational costs of power generation due to increased availability of all generation capacity.

The benefit of integrating 265 Gigawatt (GW) of wind into Europe’s grids by 2020 – compared to no further growth in wind power capacity – would be a saving of €41.7bn per year in the cost of electricity. This is a ‘merit order’ effect of €11 for every MWh produced not just those MWh produced by wind turbines. And if our electricity markets are functioning that is a saving that could be passed on to consumers.

The electricity grid infrastructure needed to accommodate increasingly large amounts of renewable energy and create effective competition in a single market in electricity includes a new offshore grid in Europe’s Northern Seas (North Sea, Irish Sea and Baltic Sea), as well as a number of improved interconnections across continental Europe (especially between Spain and France but also between Germany and its neighbours, across the Alps and in eastern and south eastern Europe).

HVDC cables are an attractive new technological option for long-distance electricity superhighways such as the offshore grid that is required in the near future, says the new report.

The report also reveals that flexibility will need to be a key feature of European power systems in the future. This means power generation will have to be more flexible to take into account variable sources of power such as wind and solar. Smart grids will be needed to allow management of demand as well as improved management of supply, and largely national grids will have to be better interconnected. EWEA’s new report shows how Denmark, Germany, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands have managed their power systems much more flexibly than in the past.

Daniel Dobbeni, President of ENTSO-E, said: “this report is a very welcome publication with a clear view towards 2020, 2030 and 2050. Together with our Ten Year Network Development Plan, it helps building a common understanding on the major issues surrounding the integration of wind energy in the European grids. The report also provides arguments that will certainly be in the centre of policy debate as we can presently observe from the publication of the Commission’s blueprint for an integrated European energy network.”

In order to achieve EU renewable energy and CO2 emission reduction targets, significant amounts of wind energy need to be integrated into Europe’s electricity system.

This report will analyse the technical, economic and regulatory issues that need to be addressed in order to do so through a review of the available literature, and examine how Europe can move towards a more secure energy future through increased wind power production.

The report’s main conclusions are that the capacity of the European power systems to absorb significant amounts of wind turbines power is determined more by economics and regulatory frameworks than by technical or practical constraints.

Larger scale penetration of wind farm power faces barriers not because of the wind’s variability, but because of inadequate infrastructure and interconnection coupled with electricity markets where competition is neither effective nor fair, with new technologies threatening traditional ways of thinking and doing. Already today, it is generally considered that wind energy can meet up to 20% of electricity demand on a large electricity network without posing any serious technical or practical problems.

When wind power penetration levels are low, grid operation will not be affected to any significant extent. Today wind power supplies more than 5% of overall EU electricity demand, but there are large regional and national differences. The control methods and backup available for dealing with variable demand and supply that are already in place are more than adequate for dealing with wind power supplying up to 20% of electricity demand, depending on the specific system and geographical distribution.

For higher penetration levels, changes may be needed in power systems and the way they are operated to accommodate more wind energy.

Experience with wind power in areas of Spain, Denmark, and Germany that have large amounts of wind energy in the system, shows that the question as to whether there is a potential upper limit for renewable penetration into the existing grids will be an economic and regulatory issue, rather than a technical one.

For those areas of Europe where wind power development is still in its initial stages, many lessons can be learned from countries with growing experience, as outlined in this report. However, it is important that stakeholders, policy makers and regulators in emerging markets realise that the issues that TSOs in Spain, Denmark and Germany are faced with will not become a problem for them until much larger amounts of wind power are connected to their national grids.

The issues related to wind power and grid integration mentioned in this report are based on a detailed overview of best practices, past experiences, descriptions and references to technical and economic assessments.

The report collects and presents detailed facts and results, published in specialised literature, as well as contributions from experts and actors in the sector. The aim is to provide a useful framework for the current debates on integrating wind power into the grid.