Irish student’s ambitious vision for a transnational super grid

29 Jul 2010

Addressing more than 300 global CEOs from the electricity industry at the Eurelectric 2010 Conference held in Dublin in June, one Irish student put forward his thesis about the idea of having a unified electricity industry across all continents, with electrical utilities, governments and industry working together to build a worldwide super grid.

Patrick McCartan, who is currently doing an MA in Energy Management at DIT, won the European Eurelectric Student Competition 2010 for his Global Electricity Community Programme (GECP) paper.

Since the Eurelectric conference, McCartan says his proposal has attracted interest from entities such as Accenture and KEMA plus international utility companies Pöyry, SSE Renewables and California ISO. Multinational technology companies have also expressed their interest.

Explaining how the GECP would work, he says each city would have its own smart grid connecting up utilities and consumers.

“Then there would be distribution networks that would connect up the country. From there, transmission lines would connect up all the countries to create a continental super grid.”

At each point on this continental super grid, McCartan says, you would have connected nodes, ie offshore wind farms and wave turbines.

“These nodes will produce energy and will allow countries to import and export energy. It’s one big connection, from a smart grid to a national grid to a super grid.”

He says sustainability is key to tackling climate change and reducing CO2 emissions.  “Organisations must place sustainability into the core of their long-term winning business strategy.”

The largest barriers to a super grid rollout

According to Tom Raftery, lead energy analyst, Redmonk, the technology for creating a super grid exists today, but he says the biggest barriers to its rollout include who is going to finance it and the current lack of a regulatory framework.

Raftery says proposals such as the SuperSmart Grid, a wide-area electricity network connecting Europe with North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and some of the eastern European countries, and DESERTEC, which proposes close co-operation between the EU, the Middle East and North Africa to achieve a sustainable supply of electricity up to 2050, are two promising initiatives.

“You also need to change the current investment scenario. The politicians from the various states need to get together and create an environment that is friendly for investment in something like this,” he affirms.

Mark Needham, a chartered electrical engineer and member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology Ireland network, says Europe is very well positioned for smart grid development.

While there isn’t yet a singular piece of EU legislation on the deployment of the smart grid, The Taskforce on the Implementation of Smart Grids in Europe is due to bring out guidelines in early 2011, covering smart meters in particular, he explains.

At EU level, the third energy package in 2009 is also addressing the integration of the electricity market in Europe, says Needham, who is a member of the ENTSOE (European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity) Economic Frameworks Working Group.

“So you’ve physical interconnection and then you’ve also got integration of markets. It’s all driving towards greater efficiency.”

He says the first thing about the smart grid is the way information will be given to the consumer to change their behaviour.

“Right now the demand on the system isn’t uniform – you’ve peaks during the day and the price changes during those peaks. You would move the demand then onto times when you probably would have more renewable energy available.”

Needham says this will tie in with the smart grid’s capacity to integrate intermittent renewables such as wind.

“You have a situation in Europe where you have a lot of wind in northern Germany and the west of Ireland, you also have a lot of hydro in places like Norway and a lot of nuclear in France. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses. If you put them all together by interconnection, then you are able to play to all of their strengths.”

So how big a challenge will it be to achieve the smart grid?

“Firstly, the actual infrastructure needs to be renewed, so you have to physically build lines and invest in the R&D and the technology,” explains Needham.

“These are five to 10-year projects, minimum. You won’t get a smart grid live in one day.

Adds Raftery: “The smart grid needs to go beyond the EU because you want to bring in North African and Middle Eastern countries and CIS states. It becomes quite a complex political issue.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic