Can Europe expand power transmission in time?
Over the last hundred years or so, Europe has built up a network of power transmission systems of which it can be proud. These systems generally perform so well that people across the continent take a reliable energy supply for granted. And the networks have so far coped admirably with the integration of (as yet low levels of) renewables, which present a very different set of challenges to the traditional generation sources that the networks were originally designed for.
Meeting our Paris Agreement obligations
However, things are changing fast in the energy world. Electricity consumption continues to grow. And the world is still not on course to meet the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement. Consequently, energy generation is set to become dominated by renewables.
To maximize efficiency and output, large renewable power plants are likely to be built in those locations with reliably high wind or solar irradiation conditions. Such locations are typically a long way from the major load centres in the cities. Hence transmission networks need to evolve and expand to support high levels of renewables, to enable bulk transfer from remote sites and enable smoother energy trading and balancing.
The challenge for Europe will be to accelerate the build-up of transmission networks while maintaining reliability and cost effectiveness. We are already seeing this in the North Sea, where intensive cable laying has started to connect offshore windfarms and create regional interconnections to facilitate international energy transfer. Such extensions need to be delivered on schedule and “right first time”.
Cost of failure is high
Failures in realization or overruns are not acceptable. At a conference on offshore cables in Amsterdam in February 2017, Danish insurer Codan and British offshore transmission owner Balfour Beatty separately reported that repairing a faulty offshore cable can take up to six months and cost 10-20 million GBP. And that says nothing about the potentially huge consequential costs – both financial and to a company’s reputation – if that fault leads to a loss of supply or a wind farm having to go offline.
The talent, the expertise – and the experience
The energy industry in Europe certainly has the expertise and talent to rise to the challenge of expanding its transmission networks in time. However, as a global partner to the energy industry, DNV GL sees that grid extensions still suffer far too often from quality issues, time overruns and higher-than-expected costs. The good news is that many of these issues could be avoided if the industry is prepared to learn from previous failures.
Through our power failure investigations in existing high-voltage systems, we see that around 50% of failures in components such as cables are caused by poor quality management during design, production and installation. Moreover, analyses of test results at our world-leading KEMA Laboratories show that around 25% of power system components cannot meet the test requirements of international standards and this figure has been consistent for some years.
Lessons of the past, successes of the future
Such failure rates – which are driven by pressure on cost and development times – are unacceptable in Europe’s drive towards its Paris Agreement obligations. But the lessons of these failures tell us that applying best practices, quality assurance and testing brings huge potential for improvement. Europe needs to realize this improvement while also managing new risks such as cyber security.
If it can do that, robust transmission networks can be planned and built on time to create a reliable, integrated energy system at an affordable cost. So that Europe can continue to be proud of an energy system where keeping the lights on can be taken for granted.
In future blogs, I will take a closer look at the specific challenges involved in expanding power transmission networks to support renewable energy sources. Please feel free to contact me if there is a particular challenge you would like to hear more about. In the meantime, to find out more about why we need to expand transmission networks and how the global energy landscape may look in 2050, take a look at DNV GL’s Energy Transition Outlook 2017.
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