Environment

Has Europe Found a Way To Replace Fossil Fuels?

A proposed wind-fueled 'supergrid' will give clean power to Europe via a 5,000-mile network, cutting the continent's carbon output by a quarter.
An audacious proposal to build a 5,000-mile electricity supergrid, stretching from Siberia to Morocco and Egypt to Iceland, would slash Europe's CO2 emissions by a quarter, scientists say.

The scheme would make the use of renewable energy, particularly wind power, so reliable and cheap that it would replace fossil fuels on an unprecedented scale, serving 1.1 billion people in 50 countries. Europe's 1.25bn tons of annual CO2 output from electricity generation would be wiped out. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines, up to 100 times as long as the alternating current (AC) cables carried by the National Grid's pylons, would form the system's main arteries. While AC lines are the international standard, they leak energy. HVDC lines are three times as efficient, making them cost effective over distances above 50 miles.

Building the supergrid would require an investment of $80bn (£40bn), plus the cost of the wind turbines -- a fraction of the €1 trillion the EU expects to pay for a 20 percent reduction of its carbon footprint by 2020. The average price of the electricity generated would be just 4.6 euro cents per kWh, competitive with today's rates, which are likely to rise as fossil fuels run out.

Yet while several governments have expressed interest, Britain is not among them, says the scientist behind the proposal. "We have the technical abilities to build such a supergrid within three to five years," said Dr Gregor Czisch, an energy systems expert at the University of Kassel in Germany. "We just need to commit to this big long-term strategy."

Many supporters of renewable energy see it as a small-scale technology, but Dr Gordon Edge of the British Wind Energy Association, said the megaproject was essential. "European policy is only just waking up to this," he said.

The supergrid would draw power from massed turbines in a band of countries to Europe's south and east that have above average wind potential, feeding it to the industrialised centres of Europe. The scale would overcome the biggest obstacle to wind power -- its unreliability. In smaller networks, such as Britain's National Grid, calm weather could cut production to zero. But the supergrid would cover a region so large that the wind would always be blowing somewhere.