Eddie O’Connor provides address to the European Parliament

“Get it Done”
Dr Eddie O’Connor
CEO, Mainstream Renewable Power
7th March 2012

The title of this Conference is a stirring call to action. It tells us in very direct language to “Get it Done.”

In effect, we are being told to build a sustainable energy future – and to build it without delay. I completely agree with this sentiment.

I share that sense of urgency about getting things done because right now we are facing a huge challenge regarding electricity generation in Europe.

All across the EU the power sector is in a state of flux. Plant is being closed down which is leaving enormous gaps to be filled in the generation portfolio.

For example, Germany has decided to close its nuclear reactors by 2022 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In total it’s around 20GW.

Britain wants to shut down 15GW’sof coal-fired generation.

In addition, Europe has to meet the targets set by the RES 2020 Directive which was initiated by the great Andris Piebalgs.

There is another challenge we have to meet – the supply of hydrocarbons.

Brent crude is selling for over a $125 US a barrel. There was even an article in last month’s “Nature” explaining why the international oil industry is incapable of meeting future increases in global demand.

Uncertainty over the future supply of oil has led to the so-called “dash for gas”. As a result, we are supposed to be entering the golden age of gas. That brings its own problems, which the gas industry wants you to ignore.

First of all, there is the simple scientific fact that gas is a hydrocarbon and burning it gives rise to the sort of emissions that cause global warming.

Secondly, there is the scandal of shale gas which is unfolding before our very eyes across the US, China and Europe. For those of us who care about the environment this mad rush to shale is profoundly disturbing for it is being done without any proper environmental impact assessment.

The world’s scarcest resource is fresh water but it is being used to create a water hammer to break rocks, a process which, as far as I can see, leads in most instances to the uncontrolled release of methane into the atmosphere.

And we all know how dangerous methane can be.

Faced with these developments in power generation, the price and supply of oil and the emergence of the new environmental threat posed by shale gas I respond with the question once posed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

“What is to be done”?

As a contributor to this session I have been asked by the organisers to come up with some answers.

Well, as always, we start with the facts. And here they are.

The renewable electricity industry is supposed to be a major part of the answer. But let me tell you quite clearly that the renewable energy industry in Europe is in full throttle failure when it comes to dealing with the challenge of building a sustainable energy future.

Europe used to pride itself on having the answer to that challenge and the message went something like this.

Potentially, we have enough wind power on land and enough solar power in the Sahara to build a sustainable energy future for Europe.

Well, for a start, I am here to tell you here and now that wind on land is not the answer. I want to dispel the delusion that it is.

Denmark shut down on-shore wind eight years ago. Spain shut it down four weeks ago and Germany is grinding to a stop. Last month, a hundred Government MPs in Britain called for a halt to all on-shore wind developments in the UK.

On top of all this we see sluggish wind developments elsewhere, such as in Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Poland.

We are reaching the limit of what can be built on-shore in terms of wind.

For the first time in my experience those of us who stand on the sustainability side of the energy debate seem bereft of practical realistic answers. Those we are providing are either theoretical or impractical: they are not addressing political realities.

Let me start with the gigantic problem of grids in Europe.

Here we have a major challenge of great complexity which if it is not solved could frustrate the future we here want to achieve.

Yet when it comes to grids we are looking at political failure on a grand scale.

The problem arises from the very nature of wind. If wind is exclusively developed at the national level as part of each country’s generation portfolio then it is impossible in practice for wind to get beyond a 20% penetration level.

As soon as this level is reached, Governments realise that every additional unit of renewable electricity put on the system requires the back-up generation of one unit of dirty electricity.

This is in recognition of the fact that wind is a variable source of power when looked on as a national resource. It is only when it is treated as continental resource that it can move to its rightful role as a mainstream, secure source of electricity.

The same line of reasoning applies to solar power.

But to get to that point there are several other structural failings in Europe which have to be addressed politically.

For example, we have forty-two separate transmission system organisations in the European Union.

Furthermore we have twenty-seven different regulatory authorities.

And we trade a mere 5% of our electricity across national boundaries.

In reality, we are as far away from a single market in electricity as when Jaques Delors first proposed a Single European Market in all goods and services nearly thirty years ago.

It is actually very simple to say what Europe needs in order to exploit wind and solar as continental resources: we need a Pan European Supergrid stretching from the North Sea to the Sahara and a unified transmission system run by a single regulator.

From a technical perspective, the Supergrid will be a meshed grid in which SuperNodes collect offshore wind power and move it to population centres. I anticipate roughly 40% of Europe’s electricity will be generated from offshore wind and carried by the Supergrid to the centres of consumption.

Similarly, the Supergrid will collect circa 30% of Europe’s electricity requirements from solar in the Sahara.

Both these grids will be linked up at SuperNodes in mid Europe, thereby creating an integrated Supergrid serving the whole of Europe.

A central feature of the Supergrid will be the use of High Voltage Direct Current, known as HVDC, to transmit the electricity generated from offshore wind and solar to the large centres of population within Europe.

This relatively new technology will enable us to transmit renewable power over long distances at economic cost.

But in building these new transmission lines it is an unavoidable fact that it will not be possible to build them as over-head lines. The cables will have to be buried underground.

That is what the electorates of Europe want – and the sooner this political reality is accepted the better. Otherwise, the grid will be delayed inordinately, or else not built at all.

To summarise the situation with wind: generation will primarily be offshore and transmission onshore will be underground. We need a Supergrid and a single electricity market.

Now let me turn to the challenges facing the development of the solar component of the sustainable energy system we so urgently require.

If we are going to locate, let’s say, 30% of Europe’s electricity generation in the Sahara, which most authorities agree is a rational thing to do, then it would be appropriate for Europe to do a deal with the countries in the region and to start planning for a common future together.

This is a tough ask politically. It cuts to the core of the great religious and cultural divide between a 21st century democratic Europe and a post-medieval Muslim North Africa.

Given the great changes that are underway in the Arab world it would seem to me that some fifteen to twenty years of work is needed to create the necessary level of political harmony and understanding between these two quite distinct civilisations.

Without that harmony and identity of interests Europe will not have secure access to Saharan solar power. It falls to parliamentarians like you to find the way forward.

My final remarks are these.

As parliamentarians, you have a once in a century opportunity to create the political conditions needed to bring about the transition to a sustainable energy future.

I have tried in these short remarks to identify the main challenges.

I have focussed on the need to build a Supergrid encompassing both offshore wind and solar power. The builders of the new Supergrid grid will have to be incentivised to incur the risk of undertaking something completely innovative.

I have stressed the need for a single European regulator and a single grid code.

I have emphasised the absolute imperative of the free movement of electricity within the European single electricity market. All bureaucratic and regulatory barriers must be removed.

I have stated the need to stop deluding ourselves about the capacity of onshore wind to meet our future energy needs or the willingness of electorates to permit overhead high voltage power lines to be built across our continent.

I have called for the political will to build a sustainable energy future, which means taking the right long term decisions irrespective of short-term difficulties.

That is why I have turned to you, the parliamentary representatives of the Green movement throughout Europe. The Lisbon Treaty gave the European Union new powers in fighting climate change and in developing energy policy. It also expanded the authority of this Parliament, of which you are members.

I know you will face up the challenges ahead and seize the opportunities that now present themselves to make a better future for all the citizens of Europe.

The Green Movement has never lacked for courage and has long been in the vanguard of change. That is why I look forward to working with you in the pursuit of our common goals.

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