A regionally interconnected grid, which would provide access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy, could be the 21st century’s biggest challenge.
This could allow for the production of renewable energy to be delivered via a ubiquitous regional grid, from where it is available, to where it is the most needed. However, this would mean building thousands of kilometres of a type of electricity transmission system between different locations worldwide. How feasible economically, technically and politically would it be to create an infrastructure that would cover a large fraction of the power demands of Europe, from the Middle Eastern and Northern African (MENA) countries? And how practical would it be to create a regional electricity market for MENA countries? Can the principle and lessons learnt from the interconnected grid of Europe be adapted and applied to an interconnected MENA system?
The concept of a “Super Grid” has been intensively debated worldwide, with many pros and cons to the concept. By “Super Grids” we mean a “high voltage direct and alternating current (HVDC and HVAC) network which overlay with the existing traditional alternating current (AC) network“. The main objective of Super Grids is to integrate large-scale renewable energy sources into the grid. China for example has recently begun to develop a long-distance HVDC transmission, to transport hydroelectricity from the center of the country to the east coast.
In Algeria, Iran and Egypt, the UAE has plans for developing concentrated solar power (CSP) plants. CSP is already a proven technology, which can operate at a large scale, and CSP solutions have been already installed in the US, Spain, China, South Africa and India, plus several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It has been already shown that solar energy has great potential in MENA and the West African countries, and could provide sustainable and clean electricity for many years to come. For example, a CSP plant of the size of Lake Nasser has the capacity to supply all of the electrical requirements for the entire region, which would equal the total Middle East oil production.
Significant research has already explored the idea of Super Grids over the last few years. Some of these projects are: DESERTEC, SuperSmart Grid (SGG, MSP (Mediterranean Solar Plan) and Medgrid. The DESERTEC Foundation for example examined the practicalities of building a large number of CSP plants in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries by using high-voltage direct-current cables to transmit electricity to Europe. It has been proposed that up to 20% of the power demands for Europe could be attained via an interconnection between Africa to Europe. The research study that examined the European Economic Association – Middle East North Africa (EEA-MENA) Super Grid interconnection plan for 2050 (a variant of the DESERTEC project and the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP)), included not only the potential for solar power electricity to be imported from the MENA region to Europe by constructing a Super Grid, but also to take into account offshore wind and hydro-electric resources from Northern Europe, which would create a greater degree of regional clustering.
With the effects of climate change, extreme events such as flooding, desertification, the loss of arable land and water sources combined with the growing scarcity of fossil fuels, and an ever-increasing reliance on resource use (i.e. water, energy, food) prices will most likely increase, which will in turn cause greater conflict and rising insecurity worldwide. Planning in advance for the use of renewable sources will in turn affect the life of fossil fuels, providing generations to come with a more secure future in terms of our available resources. In addition, the use of renewables will help reduce carbon emissions and provide a cleaner and healthier environment, as well as increase cross-border cooperation and more active negotiations between the differing regions, helping to better shape the current geopolitical landscape.
There are of course risks which need to be carefully taken into account, as the development of a Super Grid poses a number of challenges to industry and policy-makers. For example, an unexpected decrease in power generation from the MENA regions could put the whole of the European network under the risk of a blackout. In addition, the timescales for current conventional transmission planning process are much shorter than for Super Grids, which will require a three to four decade horizon. The institutional framework for planning and developing the Super Grid requires significant advancements under which an efficient Super Grid investment could be implemented. In addition, policies and economic frameworks would need to be carefully organized, together with the implementation of significant incentive measures to facilitate an adequate market for electricity generation from renewable sources. Despite these challenges, the Super Grid concept might ultimately prove to become a practical route to a cleaner future.