Moving to substantially reduce greenhouse gasses, and with a strong focus on renewable energy, electrification and power management, the European Union is further down the path toward a more advanced power infrastructure than is the US. But there are obstacles aplenty.
“Europe is obviously not one country, but several countries with separate grids and different regulations,” said Florian Mayr, a Berlin-based partner at Apricum — The Cleantech Advisory.
Building smarter and greener electrical grids throughout the EU will require not only political will, but enormous doses of transnational cooperation. Europe, unlike the US, has a legal framework. It’s called The Clean Energy Package, which the EU adopted last year, with an eye on 2030 carbon-reduction commitments.
There’s also a physical framework, a super grid that interconnects 26 of the 27 EU nations. It’s a synchronous grid, in that the power systems operate on the same frequency.
However, the amount of inter-connected electricity flowing through this grid varies widely from country to country, and most connections amount to 30% or less of total installed capacity.
There are other breakthroughs in transnational cooperation. One of the most promising revolves around offshore wind. Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have an agreement that not only covers the joint development of offshore assets, but also seeks to wind-generated electricity as a way to begin further integrating national grids.
By and large, the electricity grids in Europe are in much better shape than those in the US. Europeans in general are more supportive of energy conservation and more committed to a greener future, both of which are reflected in electricity generation and consumption.
“Compared to the United States, Europe has a developed vision for its electric power sector housed within its broader strategic plans to advance an energy union that provides secure, sustainable, competitive, and affordable energy to all Europeans and the region’s effort to address global climate change,” wrote Sarah Ladislaw and Stephen Naimoli, in a Center for Strategic and International Studies report last year comparing the two.
Within the EU, however, there are huge differences in renewable energy usage. According to 2018 EU statistics, the 27 countries range from Sweden, which notched 55% of its energy needs through renewables, to the Netherlands, with just 7.4%, although it is projected to reach 14% this year, and Malta, whose share of renewables was 8%. As a whole, the EU was on track to reach 20% renewables this year. By contrast, the US was 11% in 2019.
Here are some of the other challenges Europe faces when it comes to a smarter, more environmentally friendly grid:
Geography: Wind power is obviously location specific. The immense wind power potential in the North Sea, for example, necessitates transmission over long distances to get to the centers of population.
Finances and investments: Monetary constraints limit the pace of development in many EU countries. “Strong differences exist between member states in the number of projects, overall level and pace of investment,” wrote an EU study on smart grids. Not surprisingly, Germany leads in all categories. Malta trails. EU money can only provide a small proportion of all the funds necessary.
National regulatory environment: Regulatory frameworks vary widely from country to country.
Red tape and local opposition: Even in countries devoted to renewables and smarter grids, resistance can be strong. In Germany, for example, wind power is generated in the north, but electricity must be carried to the south where the demand is. “There are a lot of states and municipalities in between which do not benefit directly,” explained Mayr. “There’s quite some resistance. Then they insisting on underground cables, which are extremely expensive.”