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Interconnectors are the key to increasing generation capacity in Europe

4 min read

The cost of energy in Europe has consumed countless column inches – and for good reason, with prices higher than ever.

Just this past week, the governments of the UK and France released a joint memorandum, setting out agreements and solutions aimed at solving our shared European energy crisis – from building new interconnectors and transmission capacity, to upscaling nuclear and renewable generation capacity. Yet few seem to remember that last winter, Europe faced a major jump in electricity prices, as well. This simple statistic proves a fundamental fact that politicians, governments and institutions across Europe are failing to engage with: While the war in Ukraine has worsened our energy situation, it is not the only driver of our helplessness against fluctuating energy prices.

Expert analysis points rather to a deeper, more fundamental problem: A lack of transmission capacity, coupled with not enough renewable generation and flexibility. Generation and transmission are intimately intertwined – in fact, inseparable, for a secure energy future for Europe. One cannot invest in green energy in earnest without building the transmission and distribution systems to ensure their effects are pan-European, and not regional or local.

Governments today need to do all they can to encourage investment to build new renewable and flexibility and storage capacities. Yet, for example, building additional massive offshore wind and corresponding grid capacity has lead times that are prohibitively long.

The question then becomes – how do we encourage private enterprise and investment to engage fully in power generation and grid capacity? The answer is to shift it away from a local boon, which carries the risk of NIMBYism and political hot potatoes, and to turn it much more into a national and international generation and energy security question.

To achieve this, the EU and the UK both need to invest heavily in transmission (and distribution) capacity – in short, electricity interconnectors, able to efficiently and securely direct energy to wherever it is needed within a grid, even across national lines. Foremost amongst these are projects like the Aquind Interconnector, set to bring online an additional two gigawatts of transmission capacity to the UK-France grid, connecting Dieppe to Portsmouth and providing an estimated 17 TWh of electricity from French nuclear power stations to the UK grid over the course of a year.

Europe has a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head: Within 10 to 15 years, a major part of all of its fossil fuel power plants (and many nuclear plants) will reach the end of their life cycles. In the projected scenario of energy generation on the Continent, the UK’s new generation capacity – from renewables like wind power, as well as new nuclear plants – will be indispensable to ensuring the continued resilience of Europe’s grid. It is quite possible that in +/- 10 years, the UK will become a net exporter of energy, and an energy generation hub of its own; to ensure this, we cannot afford to delay today.

How do we encourage private enterprise and investment to engage fully in power generation and grid capacity?

Yet we find ourselves in a rapidly closing window of opportunity: Two weeks ago, the Cooperation Agreement between the UK and EU managed to break through the interminable loggerheads over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is excellent news, as it provides ready-made, practical regulation for energy sharing and generation between the EU and UK. These regulations – including tariff controls, sharing agreements and joint control of interconnection – have the opportunity to unlock massive amounts of investment into making our grids resilient.

But time is short: There is as yet no European regulator formally tasked with overseeing interconnection to Great Britain, and no implementation of the regulation finally unlocked in the Cooperation Agreement. With the UK Chancellor’s Budget set to be announced on the 15th of March, we risk losing crippling amounts of funds from tariffs, and we will fail to achieve the investment in generation capacity our grids need, unless the stipulations of the EU-UK Cooperation Agreement are taken into account. The various governments in Brussels, London, and the national capitals of Europe must take immediate action – for our national security, our energy supply, and our environment.

Disclosure: Aquind is a supporter of Friends of Sustainable Grids’ Energy Education Initiative.

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