OPINION: The direct current internet protocol revolution starts this week

2 Oct 2012

Ireland's Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte (left) and Dermot Byrne, EirGrid chief executive, at the recent launch of the East-West Interconnector that connects the power grids of Ireland and Britain. Photo via EirGrid

Green Party Leader and Ireland’s former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, looks at a technology that could do more than anything else to allow a rapid scaling up of renewable power and reduction in fossil fuels.

The door to the inner chamber of the converter station had a strange double lock, with a complex key system like the ones they use to launch a nuclear missile. It was there to stop anyone opening the door when the station is running. If you managed to do so you would be eviscerated by half a billion watts of energy running out the door like a bolt of lightning. The station at Batterstown in Co Meath is at one endpoint of the new electricity cable between Ireland and Wales, and it goes into commercial operation this week.

Its job is to convert the power on the cable from High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) into an Alternating Current (AC), which is used on the rest of Ireland’s power grid. To understand the need for that conversion, think how much easier it would be to pulling a taught rope over a long distance rather than one with a myriad number of small waves in it.  

At the official opening two weeks ago, there was a short tour of the plant, which is when I came across the double locked door. It was closed but we could look through a small porthole window, as long as we didn’t take a photo with a mobile phone for fear that the flash could trip the electric arch in the room and shut the whole plant down. Inside it looked like a big sports hall with metal walls and floor and banks of black capacitors and shiny silver thyristors which reached up to the ceiling. The room would have made a perfect set for a Doctor Who TV show in the 1970s. I looked in with wonder, because this for me is one of the key new technologies that might just help us avoid a catastrophic climate future. We are going to need a lot more of this technology as an alternative to the fossil fuel energy system we currently rely upon.  

Most energy experts are agreed that the switch to a low-carbon future is going to require a lot of clean electricity to run our transport system, to heat our homes, to power our factories and to keep our communication systems going in a secure and competitive way. In Europe, the great hope is that we will be able to deliver that power by building new HVDC networks which merge wind and ocean power from the north and west with solar power from the south and hydro power from the Alps and Norway. By starting to build that interconnecting grid now, we might just be able to make the 90pc cut in emissions that we need to do by the middle of this century. It also holds out the prospect of giving a massive economic stimulus to Ireland because it just happens to have some of the greatest wind and ocean energy resources of all.

Technology under development

The cables are themselves inherently safe. Once trenched under the ground you would get more electromagnetic radiation from the watch on your wrist than you would from the power line. However, the technology is not yet fully developed. While a HVDC line can shift power long distances from point A to B, it doesn’t yet have the flexibility to be operated as part of the ordinary ‘synchronised’ grid. In such a grid you need to be able to re-route power at the flick of a switch, so that when a generating station breaks down or a power line falls, you can still keep the lights on by getting electricity to the customer via a backup route, while the fault is fixed. However, it looks like the cable manufacturers are now close to delivering the circuit breaking equipment that will make such flexibility possible. It might not sound dramatic but delivering that new technology quickly could do more than anything else to allow a rapid scaling up of renewable power and the cutting out of fossil fuels.

When we have such a grid, the variability of wind and solar becomes less of a problem because at some point or other in Europe the sun will be shining or the wind will be blowing or water will be running from a dam. A second benefit is that the monitoring and data management systems that you need to maintain such flexible fault controls will also support the sort of demand management and electricity storage options that we will need to make a 100pc renewable power system possible. This is the ‘smart grid’ that the American, Chinese, Japanese and Korean governments are all looking to develop, in the race to become the most modern resource-efficient economy.  

For the moment, European companies are the leaders in providing the HVDC technology and Ireland is one of the leaders in integrating renewable power in a grid. Such power now provides 18pc of our electricity and if we can overcome delays in our planning system and if the regulators North and South can co-operate properly, we should be able to reach our target of a 40pc renewable power supply by 2020. The prize before us now is a much bigger one. By sharing our renewable power with the UK and France and using some of their nuclear plants, as well as our gas-fired plants as a backup to wind power, we should be able to go way beyond that short-term target.

The European Union has been working on a North Seas Grid Initiative as a first step towards the sort of integration we need. The European Transmission operator Entso-e has also been developing a 10-year development plan which includes two new 1GW interconnectors to France and the UK. They are twice the size of the one that we have just built to Wales and they could be built as joint ventures, using money from the European Investment Bank and from the €9bn that is earmarked in the new Connecting Europe Facility. The good news is that both the UK and the French grid companies are interested in working with us, so we will not be building or paying for the next interconnector on our own.  

Cable laying

Nostag 10 cable-laying ship at Barkby Beach in Wales

An ‘Energy Internet’

Meanwhile, Eddie O’Connor, the CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, is looking at a far more revolutionary plan. His Energy Bridge idea  is to run five Gigawats of power from wind farms in the Irish midlands to a central node in the North East of Ireland, from where it would go straight across the Irish Sea to the UK. They are likely to need that power as their old coal and nuclear plants are due to shut down and opposition to wind power in the UK has kept their percentage of renewable power to just 8pc.  

The creation of such nodal points is critical to the technological leap we need to make. The new circuit breaking equipment could allow the switching and redirecting of power to and from the node. Lights could go on in Berlin at the turning of a blade in the middle of an Irish bog.  Billions of signals would be sent to European car batteries, fridges, boilers and many other storage devises, telling them to ramp up or down in response to minute by minute fluctuations in the syncronised electricity system.  Datacentres would go at full throttle in Dublin when the wind is strong here and then other server farms would switch into action across the North West of Europe as a weather front crosses the continent. You could call it an ‘Energy Internet’ and I think it is the future, both for our economy and our environment.

Mainstream is not alone in seeing the opportunity. The people behind the Spirit of Ireland project and Element Power have similar if slightly different plans. In the long run, there will be room for a range of different providers. The scale of the opportunity is truly massive, particularly for those who are able to develop ocean energy, because our seas are ten times bigger than our land area and the energy density of the resource is greater, once we can overcome the economic and technological difficulties that are involved.  Eirgrid has already done some advanced long-term modeling which shows there would be a natural transfer of energy from Ireland and Scotland down to France and the South of England. The models show that there would be real system benefits for everyone if we manage to properly connect up European energy markets.

If we want this new grid to have some of the characteristics of the internet then we should start by making sure that the interconnectors can be used on a truly ‘Open Access” basis. Why not apply some of the principles of the ‘Internet Protocol’ that shaped our digital revolution to the new electricity network. Doing so we could be sure that everything from the smallest electrical switch to the largest powerline is working on the same information wavelength. It will make the network cheaper to build it will allow it more easily scale up and down as it grows.

In planning for this new energy future I think it will be better for Europe and the nation states to design the grid. That way we can make sure that everyone is playing by the same basic rules and has equal access to the network. The developers may say that their private lines wouldn’t interfere with the existing grid but the very act of connecting to the UK on their own would see them capture the potential market and operational benefits, which would not then accrue to the overall system. The statement by the UK National Grid and Mainstream Power that they were to jointly look at options for developing such independent lines, would seem to run counter to a more co-ordinated approach.  

A critical point

We are now at a critical point in deciding how those benefits are going to be developed and shared out.  The Irish and British Governments are in the process of reaching a formal memorandum of understanding on the issue but progress seems to be painfully slow. If the UK government is not willing to play ball in a realistic way, then we should concentrate on working with the Socialist and Green Government in France and take the first steps with them. More than anything else we need our political system to clearly set out the steps that need to be taken.  

Making it happen will require a commitment to greater European integration. It has already started in the energy markets but it now needs to shift up several gears. Secondly, it will need the development of common rules for community gain, so that those areas where the wind farms or converter stations are located get real long-term benefits. There will be a large number of construction jobs but we need more permanent gains for local communities, if they are to have a real sense of ownership and pride in the project. This could be an export industry bigger than either food production or tourism and we can do it in a very sustainable manner if we get this planning phase right.  

Finally, we will need some political faith in the technology, so that directions can be given to the grid engineers, the regulators and the departmental officials to make the necessary policy changes and investments quickly. As Eddie O’Connor wrote last month, regulatory bodies will never lead a revolution. It is up to the politicians to give them the permission and the instructions to make it happen. With the Arctic Sea ice melting and extreme weather events increasing, this revolution cannot happen quickly enough. With our economies in crisis and the need for a major stimulus via investment in real productive assets, this Green Growth project could not be better timed. Those environmental and economic challenges are truly frightening but one look through the window of a converter station in Co Meath made me think that just maybe our clean energy internet revolution might be possible. It is only a small window of hope but as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, it is only through a small chink that a sense wonder can sometimes grow.

Eamon Ryan