13 july 2010

Do you see geopolitical issues that might render instable such realization?

I answer with a question. Why don’t we raise a geopolitical concern to the fact that Europe currently imports about 25% of its natural gas imports from a single country, Algeria, and another 40% from one other single country, Russia? The gas pipelines currently in use act exactly like a super-grid, transporting gas from Sahara and from Siberia to Europe. There is no conceptual difference from transmitting electricity instead of gas.

The only difference is that the gas is stored in big storages to guarantee about 2 month of autonomy (The storage hydropower storages with a capacity roughly equal one month of the electricity consumption are somewhat smaller), but if Algeria would stop the supply we would soon have big problems. And we experienced a crisis when Ukraine stopped the transit of gas from Russia through its territory.

The scenario with renewable electricity would be instead much more secure, because the sources can be diversified, with less dependency from single countries.

Think about the enormous rise of the oil price, which increased ten times in a decade, jumping from roughly 10$/barrel in the 90s to the 150$/barrel we saw recently… this cannot happen with renewable sources, which instead become cheaper with time, thanks to the advancement of technology, and are available more or less everywhere, with a relatively low variation of cost.

What conditions would facilitate the implementation of a new grid? How are you involved in fostering that idea?

One approach is to apply the EU directive and the German law mentioned before, which facilitates the erection of new transmission lines, but we lack a similar legislation all over Europe. We further need a harmonized regulation to support the financing of these projects, for example a common European feed-in tariff able to cover the cost for production and transmission of the electricity.

This would be a powerful instrument to attract investors and to guarantee a certain security of the financial returns, which in turn would give access to cheaper credits. I’m lobbying for that idea since several years, lately in the “Mitigation Country Study for Germany” for the UN Human Development Report 2007/2008 Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world.

What consequences may this large grid system have on the Saharan countries?

The benefits for the concerned countries in Africa could be tremendous.
I give one simple example. To import 10% of its electricity demand from wind energy in Morocco, Europe would have to invest about 3% of its GDP in wind generators in Morocco. This corresponds to roughly 200% of the Moroccan GDP. Such a decision would boost the local economy, creating jobs, local competences and industries. In addition it would help Morocco to produce its electricity from its own wind resources since the resources can more cost efficiently be used in large scale than for the small national demand. The tremendous potential can hardly be exploited to a considerable extend if there is not a powerful connection with an inter-regional grid with the big consumer Europe.

Such a large-scale cooperation based on renewable energies would constitute a win-win situation, and the same is valid for several other Saharan countries.

It would be a clear sign towards a systematical change in the way we live together, because it would not be a fragmented intervention or a temporary help for a developing country, but a sustainable investment in order to serve for a mutual interest in the long term.

Before we go on with a more divided world, more tensions throughout the Mediterranean, more immigration phenomena, we have to think of cooperation and catch such an opportunity for a global human development. It reflects an important decision we have to take, to find a standpoint cooperation or separation.

Is there any feedback from the Saharan countries?

Yes and very positive. Since the beginning of my work I’ve been cooperating with politicians and scientist from Morocco and from other North African countries, like the former Minister of Mining in Algeria who published the results of my study in his journal, or Egyptian authorities, or Sahara-wind a company lobbying for exports of wind energy from Morocco for roughly one decade now. Many Africans have well understood the benefits of such a system.

Are there similar projects outside Europe and Sahara?

Nobody has developed so far a systemic study like mine for another world region.

A study with some similarities but much simpler was published in Scientific American. I had exchanged ideas with the authors in some conference in 2004, but they followed a more simplified approach and did not optimize the whole system.

I have discussed the results of my research also in China and India - here in connection with the Observer Research Foundation - and I saw some further developments.

An interesting development in Africa is driven by the enormous hydropower potential located close to Inga at the river Congo. Here could be built one single hydropower station that could deliver about two thirds of the whole African electricity demand at very low cost, around 1 c/kWh. This opportunity is known since decades. And there are other very good sites at the river Congo and at other African rivers.

Several African countries are joining together to build up so called power pools. The Idea is to erect a kind of pan African Super-grid to make use of this potential source of electricity at Inga all over Africa. There is some involvement of The World Bank, the African Development Bank, and industries like ABB. This development could be combined with the development of the European/North African Super-grid.

In 1989 Karl-Werner Kanngießer, an expert at HVDC, proposed that a part of the electricity from Inga could be delivered to Europe by means of an HVDC connection.

I knew this proposal and therefore I also elaborated one scenario making use of the energy from Inga, with the interesting result that the overall cost of electricity would be reduced considerably, both because the hydropower is cheaper in itself and because it helps to restrict the remaining use of wind power to better sites with higher efficiency, an advantageous systemic effect.

I am discussing this scenario and the combination of the two Super-grids with African experts. We also consider potential problems of security when a huge proportion of electricity comes from one single site. Or we look at the situation where at once a huge part of the production comes from a new plant and would force existing plants to be switch off, a situation which is not very welcome by the owners of the existing plants. But combining the African Super-grid with the European/North African Super-grid both problems could be solved since the relative contribution of the Inga power plant would be much smaller in the common system and the backup capacities for emergency situations would be much bigger.

So the combined Super-grid system expanding from Inga over the whole African continent and to Europe matches very well with the European and African demand and the need of African development. If we imagine the routes connecting Inga with Europe, we could feed electricity along the way in many grids of African countries, supporting industrialization and development at very low cost. When the African demand grows further African renewable sources like wind, hydropower or biomass could be used to feed into the Super-grid while the more expensive electricity could be used and paid by the rich European countries.

How is public awareness about the energy debate? Is it still considered a merely technical issue?

My feeling is that the public awareness is growing quickly. I am asked to give presentations in many different contexts, technical, political, or groups of interested citizens, and all of them are very open minded - as long as they do not belong to a certain lobby or a company’s shareholders or belief in a very decentralistic approach.

However, the opportunities represented by the super-grid are not yet fully arrived at the political level. If we look at the recent Copenhagen debates: instead of developing new ideas, they are still discussing about the trading of CO2 emissions, carbon limits, carbon-taxes and other old-style proposals which hardly are effective because they are too much based on the unrealistic believe in the positive market forces and neglect the inelastic behavior of the consumers in the case of energy consumption.

The carbon tax for example cannot achieve any significant CO2 reduction, because Energy is a good with low price elasticity: when the price increases, the consumption remains the same (like the mentioned 10-time increase of oil price which had hardly any effect on the consumption). Another tax on the fossil fuels will not really help to reach any goal of reduction, but will only make the energy more expensive, resulting in harmful social effects like reduced accessibility for poor people. In the rich state Germany, as many as about 800.000 households are disconnected from electricity and/or gas supply annually because they simply cannot pay the bill. This has serious consequences not only for the lifestyle but also for health.
A tax intervention on energy reflects an old political mentality based on the believe that the marked will be the best regulation.

If governments want to change something they have to think in completely other ways. E.g. they should directly change the electricity system, which is responsible for roughly half of the global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Our society has the possibility to establish a cheaper electrical supply without CO2 emissions. Why aren’t these solutions taken into account in the climate debate? There is not enough political awareness about the known possibilities.

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