Could Nordics be Europe’s battery pack?

This article was previously published in Marine Renewable Energy.
It is a bit like buses: you wait ages for a North Atlantic power interconnector and then two come along at once. At the moment it is fair to say there is a lot of interest in getting an energy link set up between Norway and the UK. First up on the road to better energy connections across the North Sea is a project called HVDC Norway-UK, backed in equal parts by the grid operators of the two countries concerned: Norway’s Statnett and the National Grid in the UK.

This scheme, which has been under discussion since 2003, would see the development of a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) link with a 1,400MW capacity. The Norwegians have selected Suldal, in the south west of the country, as their landing point. Meanwhile the UK terminal has moved somewhat since the project’s inception.

Originally it was due to be in Northern Ireland: Easington in County Durham, to be precise. The location has since moved to Blyth, Northeast England, involving a route that would require around 710 km of cable. Statnett and National Grid figure the project would cost GBP£1.3 billion and could be operational in 2020. But since 2011 it has had a competitor, in the form of a scheme called NorthConnect.

Again featuring a 1,400MW HVDC link, NorthConnect is very much a Nordic energy sector affair, with a list of backers that reads like a who’s who of the Scandinavian power industry. It includes the Norwegian electricity firms Agder Energi, E-CO and Lyse, and the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. Sources close to the project have confirmed the partners do not all have equal shares in it.

The proposed UK landing point for NorthConnect is in Scotland, at Peterhead Aberdeenshire, rather than England. And the project is currently due to kick off around 2019 or 2020, with a £1.75 billion price tag. It is unlikely that both projects will go ahead at the same time, and NorthConnect in particular faces potential regulatory challenges in Norway.

But what is clear is that there is an increasingly good chance of Norway having an energy connection to the UK by around the beginning of the next decade.
And that is potentially very significant news for renewable energy on both sides of the North Sea. The UK in particular is rushing headlong towards a situation where it may soon be taking on board very large amounts of intermittent, ocean-based power.

Yet it currently lacks any significant energy storage capacity with which to hang on to any excess. The easiest and most commonly used way to store large amounts of surplus renewable power is to use it to pump water into dams and retrieve it later in the form of hydro energy.

Pumped hydro currently accounts for about 90% of all energy storage in the world but in the UK there is hardly enough to store the surfeit of power likely to come off the North Sea on a windy night in a few years’ time. With a NorthConnect or a HVDC Norway-UK in place, however, the UK would have the option of shipping any energy it could not use over to Scandinavia.

Of course, it is unlikely that Norway would have any more need for large amounts of energy on a windy night than the UK might. But sending power to Scandinavia raises two interesting prospects. The first is that it could then be forwarded on to other parts of the continent, such as Germany, which may indeed have increased power requirements. The Nordic countries already have their sights set on improving their energy export capabilities.

In addition to the two potential links to the UK, Norway is planning to build a 1,400MW interconnector with Germany by 2018, according to reports. And a second, related option is that excess renewable power from the UK, or even Germany for that matter, gets bought up cheaply by Norway and is stored in Scandinavian pumped hydro facilities, to be re-sold later on. Unlike the UK or Germany, the Nordic countries have ample pumped hydro potential.

They already get more than half their electricity from hydro, which is generally credited with allowing them to enjoy lower power prices than gas-guzzling counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Ilesh Patel, a partner at the energy consultancy firm Baringa, says the creation of power links with Norway could in theory be seen as a way of giving European marine renewable energy generators a battery pack.

However, he adds, the industry needs to be aware that this form of storage will only be an option when the financial incentives are properly aligned on either side of the interconnector. “Is an interconnector to Norway an additional form of storage? The answer is yes,” he says. “Will that work all the time? It depends on the economies of arbitrage. You can only store power in Norway’s reservoirs when there’s an economic profit to be had by doing so.

“You might make that bet if you thought you might need that power back next week, but it carries a risk with it.”

Clearly, then, Scandinavia’s pumped hydro potential will not work for everyone all of the time. But until Europe gets a proper handle on the increasingly serious issue of energy storage, as far as renewable energy suppliers are concerned the pumped hydro option is probably going to be a whole lot better than nothing.

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