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Importing energy from Iceland: A key step towards a European Supergrid?

Posted by Alex Barrett on 27 April 2016 at 12:25 pm

The amount of energy which the UK generates from renewable sources is growing. Government figures suggest that in 2015 renewable sources contributed 17.8 TWh, 23.5 % of total UK generation [1]. However there are some countries which are well ahead of the UK when it comes to producing renewable energy. In Iceland all electricity generation comes from renewable sources [2]. 75% of energy is produced by Hydro schemes, while the remaining 25% comes from geothermal energy [3]. Fossil fuels are only used for transportation, and do not contribute to electricity generation.

Iceland has a very small population, and vast potential for renewable generation, consequently its current energy industry could be massively expanded if there were the capability to send it abroad [4]. Now the governments of Iceland and the UK are working on a project to connect the national grids of the two countries using an undersea cable [4,5,6]. At a thousand kilometres long this “IceLink” project will be the largest underwater power cable in the world, surpassing the 580 km long NorNed link between Norway and the Netherlands by a considerable margin [7].

The need for interconnectivity

At present the main problem with renewable power sources is their intermittency. Electricity usage is higher at some times of day than others, so the national grid needs to be able to generate enough power to match the peak demand, even though average energy use is lower. When using fossil fuels it is relatively easy to activate more power stations to meet the peak demand. This is difficult to do with renewable energy sources. Wind turbines will generate the most energy on windy days, while solar panels are only effective during the daylight hours. The times when these technologies are most effective may not match up with peak demand.

Storing large amounts of electricity is notoriously difficult. Energy can be channelled into thermal stores, or used to pump water up hill, so that it can drive turbines on its way back down. However these technologies cannot account for the peak demand in the same way that a coal fired, or nuclear power station can.

The best way to solve this problem is through interconnectivity. If all of Europe can be connected into a continent wide “supergrid” then intermittency becomes less of a problem. Wind turbines in one area might be quiet, but in others much more power will be being generated. Solar panels in North Africa would still be producing solar power, even when there is heavy cloud across Europe. Adding Icelandic geothermal energy to this system would provide a stable source of power to supplement variations in the effectiveness of different renewable sources across the supergrid.

Implications

Currently the UK imports energy from mainland Europe, but the majority of this is generated by coal and nuclear power stations. IceLink would be able to import 1.2 GW of renewable energy, enough to power two million homes [7]. The IceLink project has the support of the UK and Icelandic energy industries. It will take at least four years to build the undersea cables, and the project will cost £4 billion [5]. However once in place it will reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels dramatically. Importing energy can count towards a country’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions so this initiative will help the UK to fulfil some of it’s climate change obligation [4]. A government taskforce, set up to work with the Icelandic government on this project is due to report in May 2016.

References

  1. Department for Energy and Climate Change (pdf with figures for 2015)
  2. International Energy Agency: Energy Atlas
  3. Renew Economy
  4. Askja Energy
  5. The Economist
  6. The National Grid
  7. Atlantic Superconnection

Photo Credit: Alex Barrett 2012

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Comments

1 comments - read them below or add one

Toberwine

ToberwineComment left on: 30 April 2016 at 11:47 am

A good idea, but while we're at it why not outsource all our subsidised grain production to North America where it can be produced so much more efficiently? And isn't it a like bringing coals to Newcastle when we have the best wind resource in Europe?

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