Round numbers and energy networks

Posted by Mike Parr, PWR on October 8th, 2010
Organization: PWR
In reaction to the EurActiv article:

Oettinger values EU 2020 energy goals at €1 trln


Regarding ‘Oettinger values EU 2020 energy goals at €1 trln‘:

Readers will have noticed that in nature round numbers tend to be the exception rather than the rule (think of pi or e). However, in politics, the reverse seems to be the case as shown by Mr Oettinger’s €1 trln needed to overhaul energy networks (would that be with or without VAT, Guenter?) mentioned in an “early draft of the EU’s ‘Energy 2020′ strategy”.

The rhetoric that accompanies such figures is both entertaining and something of a giveaway in terms of the knowledge of the people writing, e.g. “massive refurbishment of its draughty buildings and creaking distribution networks”.

I’m an ex-power engineer that used to run power distribution networks. The phrase “creaking distribution networks” is not something that readily springs to mind when considering today’s distribution networks. They face challenges, but creaking? One does so love journalistic license. Let’s explore this in some detail.

Renewables will become more prominent as sources of embedded power in distribution networks. In the sunny south of Europe, PV will tend to dominate in both urban and rural networks. In the more windy north it will tend to be rural wind (with some PV).

Distribution networks will experience an increase in demand due to the growth in heat pumps (demand circa 6kW per installation) and later electric vehicles (probably in significant numbers from 2015 onwards). An EV on trickle charge looks like an additional house. A heat pump looks like several additional houses from the point of view of the power company.

Options to address the problem of increased demand include throwing more copper at the network (expensive) or mixing some targeted network reinforcement with home storage. If you are substituting electricity for gas and oil even with extensive electrical energy efficiency measures, it is still likely that overall power demand will rise.

PWR is currently discussing such issues with distribution companies, which clearly shows that we could not possibling know what we are talking about compared to Brussels-based NGOs (hi Erica) or indeed the towering intellects in the Commission.

By the way, you need to have well insulated houses (or offices) if heat pumps are to work well, which brings us to the “motherhood and apple pie” issue also known as “energy efficiency”. Considering the energy efficiency of electrical appliances, Mr Turmes may care to talk to his fellow MEPs who rejected a recent EC proposal on a new appliance labelling system on the basis that it was too complicated (…for our expensively educated citizens to understand). Nothing like positioning yourself as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

On the issue of transmission, 50,000kms of line (those round numbers again) is truly eye popping. But is it really this much?

Outstanding issues in this area include: moving German north sea wind to the Rhur (500km) / Stuttgart (650km) / Munich (750km), the Spain–France interconnection problem, integrating the UK into mainland networks and improving links to Europe’s battery aka Norway.

50,000km? Hmmm.

Some of the problems are political. A recent conversation between PWR and REE (Spanish TSO) respresentatives went along the following lines: PWR “you chaps need much more than 1GW of connectivity to France” REE “yes, we know – we have built most of the transmission lines needed to upgrade connections to France but the French don’t want to build on their side”. One does so love politics – over to you, Mr Oettinger: I understand you are ‘good’ at this kind of thing.

The numbers next to the German locations give distances from German north sea wind assets to the locations in question. A look at the Transpower network (which connects several of the German areas in question) suggests that a mix of a few new links (mostly located in areas of low population density) coupled to reinforcement of lines and perhaps more cross-border connections with Holland (to provide further circuit/paths) should do the trick. Say max 2,000km of network re-enforcement.

Mr Turmes is an excellent publicist but suggesting that “If Oettinger gives the message that we should sweep away protections for citizens to make way for infrastructure all he’ll get is public outcry” is missing the mark, since it is not him giving the message: Matthias Kurth, head of the country’s energy regulator (Bundesnetzagentur (BnetzA), has said that Germany’s renewable energy future hinges on the fast expansion of power transmission grids, but planning authorities are too slow.

I’m sure Mr Kurth will be interested in hearing the views of a Luxembourg MEP on the issue of network reinforcements in Germany and German citizens’ property rights. Perhaps a Euro questionnaire along the lines of ‘Do you find electricity useful?’ would focus people’s minds and help politicians get a feel for people’s priorities.

I will finish this letter with two round numbers. The recent Ecofys and the Fraunhofer ISI report commissioned by the European Climate Foundation and the Regulatory Assistance Project suggested that Europe could reach its goal of making energy savings of 20% by 2020 by realising all cost-effective energy saving measures.

Savings would be €78 billion/year by 2020 or reducing an average EU household’s energy bill by €380/year in 2020. The Euro380 figure is close to the estimate per household (Euro300/year) contained in the report ‘Roadmap 2050: A practical Guide to a Low-Carbon Europe for reducing GHGs by 80% by 2050′.

Although there is a time gap, it nevertheless suggests that getting to 80% through a mix of network upgrades coupled to investment by citizens in energy-efficiency measures should mean a fairly neutral overall cost.

The trick will be to balance the two such that they move forward in parallel. At the moment both seem to be stuck in Never Never Land where round numbers dominate and nasty detail is pushed into the background.

Mike Parr


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