The European Energy SuperGrid needs education and openness

During the 2011 European Open Days (*) I followed a presentation of the Supergrid: “a pan-European transmission network facilitating the integration of large-scale renewable energy and the balancing and transportation of electricity, with the aim of improving the European market”. The session included a standing ovation to the panelist who said, more or less:

I’m sick and tired of this “Offshore wind isn’t the way to go because it needs funding” crap. So what? The same is still true for fossil fuels, after 100 years of usage!

But I digress. Apart from that, there are two sides of the problem that I found particularly interesting.

My initial intention that morning had been to follow another session about education, but for some reason I honestly don’t remember, eventually I attended the Supergrid one. No problem: after just a few minutes, we were talking education anyway!

The panelists explained very clearly that:

  • all, or almost all the technology used for this stuff is European but is less used in Europe than elsewhere

  • while the European Energy sector needs jobs here in Europe, now

  • so there is an urgent need of skilled, well educated employees

Political and local community support is essential…

Technical training isn’t the only level on which something like the Supergrid relies on education, or more exactly on informed, responsible decisions that are only possible when you have both enough data and the skills to make sense of them.

The goal of the Supergrid is to cope at the European scale with the variability of renewable energy sources. Making this happen requires (among other things) integration of existing grids and developing better, more integrated offshore production systems. These formidable challenges demand answers to questions like:

  • Who will manage the Supergrid? Should it be centralized or distributed? Having only one operator is much, much simpler, but who should it be? This is one big Open Issue. In practice, it will probably have to be a mixed centralized/distributed model, with space for everybody from traditional bigh utilities to small newcomers

  • How do you make the transition from old grids to the new one, at a cost manageable by individuals and businesses?

  • How do you overcome bureaucracy? Technically and economically, connecting the same offshore wind park to 3 different contries makes a lot of sense, but how to harmonize regulations? Current legislation makes it pretty hard. Today it is often too complicated and not convenient to interlink grids

  • We MUST do the grid, but how do we minimize its environmental impact?

The last point isn’t only about placing wind farms in environmentally sensitive maritime areas. This type of infrastructure will need thousands of submarine cables and, in general, many more/ grids to connect all the new capacity (offshore and not) to its end users. Many of these end users will be huge urban/industrial conglomerates pretty far from the North Sea shores. How do you make people inland accept grid penetration, that is the fact that some huge transmission tower must be built in their backyard or corn field, because some (foreign) city pub wants to stay open 24/7?

…just as openness

Of course, due to my line of work, I’m biased. Still, after all I heard it seems to me that if Europe needs a Supergrid, then that Supergrid badly and urgently needs openness at several levels:

  • Open Research: one of the panelists pointed out that basic research in this field is absolutely necessary but also so expensive that it cannot be duplicated. In spite of this, he noted, “universities still stick to their own research” (the rest of the panel had no answer for this besides a vague “there must be balance between innovation compatibility and standardization”)

  • Open Data: people accept change much more easily when they get complete, reliable information based on raw data that every independent expert can validate and analyze. In spite of this, as Carlo Stagnaro recently wrote in EU Energy Orwellianism: Ignorance Is Strength: “EU authorities are not revealing information that is crucial to determine whether EU energy policies are distorting the market and come at too high a cost to society”. Why? Give us Open Data about energy and the Supergrid will be much easier to accept

  • really Open ICT standards: the European Supergrid must solve the same problem described by George Arnold for the USA Smart Grid: “the smart grid has to be based on open [ICT] standards…The key is that we need technically sound, open standards, done quickly”

After the session, I asked Ana Aguado Cornago, CEO of the Friends of the Supergrid (FOSG), if/how Open Source software standards will play a role in the Supergrid. She explained to me that, as of October 2011, FOSG has not yet done much on ICT, apart from a position paper on ISIS (Integrated Sea Information System), but since INTEL has just joined FOSG there will be more activity in this field. We’ll see how things turn out. Stay tuned.

(*) this and other articles on the 2011 Open Days are appearing late because, due to several hardware problems, I could not recover the corresponding files earlier