Technological progress brings Europe-wide electricity grid closer

» By | Published 14 Mar 2013

Recent technological advances by leading engineering companies to improve the integration of renewable energy, especially wind energy, within Europe’s power grid by 2020, will bring a pan-European electricity grid closer to reality.

Last year, the Swiss-based engineering company ABB announced the development of the world’s first circuit breaker for high voltage direct current (HVDC). “This solves a 100-year-old electrical engineering puzzle and paves the way for a more efficient and reliable electricity supply system,” says ABB. Most importantly, “it will enable the efficient integration and exchange of renewable energy”.

HVDC technology combines very fast mechanics with power electronics, and will be capable of ‘interrupting’ power flows equivalent to the output of a large power station within five milliseconds- that is 30 times faster than the blink of a human eye, says ABB. It is needed to facilitate the integration of offshore wind power and energy from other renewable sources and to interconnect different power networks in particular since it is efficient for the long-distance transportation of electricity.

French-headquartered Alstom Grid explains that a circuit breaker is vital for protecting complex so-called ‘meshed’ grids that will, in the near future, require the interconnection of several points. “The challenge is to avoid failures and blackouts, by cutting the current in the malfunctioning element as fast as possible, isolating the fault from the rest of the grid,” it says.

Alstom Grid claimed in February that it had “achieved the best performance ever seen in a HVDC circuit breaker” during tests conducted within the EU demonstration project TWENTIES. “In less than 2.5 milliseconds, the HVDC circuit breaker interrupted currents exceeding 3,000 amperes,” says the company.

“This technological achievement is excellent news for the entire electrical engineering community, and a considerable advance in our industry,” says Grégoire Poux-Guillaume, Alstom Grid president. “The direct current circuit breaker is a key element in building supergrids, both onshore and offshore. It will help to increase the share of renewable energy on the grid.”

In addition to such technological breakthroughs, the European Parliament this week gave its backing to the EU energy infrastructure package, which sets out corridors for Europe-wide energy infrastructure and identifies priority projects, including an offshore electricity grid in the North Sea. Read more here.

Alongside the physical grid infrastructure, the EU needs a single market in electricity just like the single market in people, capital, goods and services created over 25 years ago. In 2011, EU Heads of State agreed that a single electricity market should be in place by 2014, but we may be far from achieving this goal. Find out why we need a single electricity market here.