Would Europe's use of significant power imports from Africa and the Middle East be "completely barmy" ?
(Some clarifications and extensions made since earlier version)
A number of people have made comments similar to this:
“I have found Czisch’s plan for an Inter-Continental Grid, with Europe as its centre, unrealistic, politically. The idea that Europe should rely on power imports from Africa and the Middle East is completely barmy.
The recent panic over supplies of natural gas from Russia, coming through the Ukraine, show just what might be expected. And of course electricity can be turned off at the drop of a switch.”
Others have said that it is “madness” even in principle to consider importing electricity from North Africa.
(Note – Czisch has performed a massive cost optimisation looking at all viable technologies for the whole of Europe and North Africa, which includes, hydro,PV, CSP, wind, biomass, and the conclusion is that the least cost option is at the moment 70% wind and 30% biomass for a totally renewable system. CSP he calculates would have to come down in price considerably to start displacing wind – which it may of course do. His cheapest scenario does not solely rely on wind energy from North Africa as some people suppose but from all over Europe. Only 42% is imported, and that is not all from North Africa but from a variety of countries around the European borders such as Ukraine, Khazakstan, Russia etc.
This above view is questioned for the following reasons
1. Back up argument.
No one is suggesting (as the question implies) that we close all our existing fossil stations and rely totally on wind or CSP in North Africa which would be highly risky. He proposes that a substantial proportion comes from North Africa, but also from renewables all over Europe. As has been repeatedly argued, the sensible thing would be to retain the existing fleet of European fossil stations – these can be readily maintained with a 9 months stock of coal, and the two weeks worth of gas for gas fired stations. Czisch is also assuming large interconnection with existing hydro storage. We can also assume increased demand management (such as the French EJP tarrif and their 5 GW of diesels which back up their nuclear), more use of diesels as per UK, storage in vehicle batteries; This reduces the risk of sudden disconnection by sabotage or other means down to manageable proportions. subject to proper risk analysis and evaluation. Note – half the UKs fleet of nuclear power stations are currently inoperable due to unscheduled downtime, but this has not caused any prolonged supply disconnection.
2. Precedent argument
The criticism ignores the fact that in Europe we already import vast amounts of material, particularly oil. Most of our oil comes form the Middle East, but this has not of recent times caused us any problems of a sudden nature – the Saudis are only too keen to sell us the oil, and we have quite happily built up our economy based upon it. If importing power from “Africa and the Middle East is completely barmy” then so too is importing oil from Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia”, iron ore from Australia etc. We are simply saying, that it is not an argument on its own, “that we don’t want to import energy” since we already do it on a vast scale.
3. The scenario argument
The critics ignore the fact that Czisch isn’t only advocating wind or CSP power being imported form North Africa – it’s just one scenario and is not a key part of his work. He has run a number of different scenarios, covering all renewables and the North African import scenario is merely one. His work clearly shows that constructing an HVDC grid for Europe, irrespective of any North African input is economically viable in its own right, due to 1. The smoothing effect of geographical source dispersion, and 2. the ability to shut down stations that will become redundant as a direct result. (As happened when the UK National Grid was constructed and vast numbers of duplicated standby and peaking stations were no longer needed). Note: such a grid will be necessary any way in a nuclear future for the same smoothing reasons. If people remain nervous about investing in North Africa, his conclusion that we could go largely renewable just in Europe, ie without North Africa, albeit somewhat (but not a lot) more expensive is still valid.
4. The economic incentive argument
If Europe were to fund and build these plants – much as say the 500 MW Shaba copper mine and the 1500 km HVDC line constructed to the Inga Dam, was constructed in the 80’s, in a war zone, by US capital why would the local politicians / war lords etc. not want the income? Should they turn the power off, they would lose a vast amount of revenue. The same as the Russians recent posturing vis a vis the Ukrainians was doomed to be short lived due to the need for the Russians to keep hauling in the revenue. One only has to look at Africa to see how keen the various war lords are to grab the ore/diamonds/gold and sell it to the west to maintain their local hegemony. (Not that we are advocating it )
5. The wires argument
The big difference between importing oil and power, is that once the sites have been built, and connected to Europe, the only market it can then go to is Europe. With LNG or oil, cargoes can be sold and shifted elsewhere instantly with little financial loss to the sender – this is not the case with power stations wired to Europe – it can only go one way ie along the wires put in by the people who paid for it – there are no alternative markets. Of course – they could build aluminium smelters etc and use the power locally – but that takes time – allowing plenty of time for us to adapt – and the number of smelters needed to absorb ALL the power is unrealistically large – 500 MW Wylfa in Anglesey does most of UK aluminium for example.
6. The counter blackmail argument – supposing the assets were taken over by the host country?
It has been suggested that malign governments might take over the assets and then hold us to ransom – but this does not stack up. In reality, the economic boot is on the other foot here – with our existing power stations and stocks of coal, since we can run for months without using any wind that puts us in a very strong bargaining position – and as before – who else can they sell the stuff to? Andy why would they not want to continue to sell it to us? Unlike say with the oil suppliers who can of course sell it elsewhere of they don’t like the deal we are offering. Note the West paid for all the Middle East oil infrastructure, since taken over by the host countries (Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia – all countries brought into being by the UK government, (including drawing the boundaries, and installing or buying of a suitable ruling elite, at the time of the big switch to oil in the early part of last century, to suit our own purposes) without any significant economic disruption. Some of these countries have had regimes – Iraq and Iran, who detest the West, but that doesn’t stop them selling the oil, because they desperately need the revenue.
7. The hoarding argument.
Oil and gas, like grain, can be hoarded, and this is a classic method of forcing prices up – arguably this has been going on to an extent recently with oil – since there is only a finite amount of oil and gas, it makes sense to limit the supply in order to keep the price up and spin out the supply (except in stupid countries like UK and our squandered North Sea reserves) – it doesn’t decay. Whereas it is not possible to store wind energy on site. It cannot thus be hoarded and if it is not sold when it is available, the revenue is irretrievably lost.
Conclusion – 1. There is no valid reason to dismiss the Czisch case based on the type of arguments outlined in the first paragraph (there my be valid other reasons of course – in which case let’s hear them). Europe could quite easily go ahead with building a vast European HVDC grid, taking in wind power (or any other renewable that became viable – wave, PV, CSP etc) from within Europe, there being ample off shore resource to run the whole of Europe, whilst retaining the option to extend if it desired to North Africa at any stage. (Note. this grid, along with the various load management techniques) would be necessary anyway with a large nuclear / fusion programme) The exact proportions and time scales, and other measures would need to be carefully thought out on a risk management basis.
Conclusion – 2.Such a move would have high moral content, bringing much needed revenue to many impoverished people, whose only alternative is to attempt to get to Europe in leaky boats.
Conclusion – 3. Whilst we don’t know where we will end up in 30 years time, the direction is clear, and we should start building the grid anyway and the wind power since these are the cheapest and most abundant renewables at the moment. As other technologies come along (they may or may not) we can switch technological horses, with no economic regret since the grid will be needed anyway. This is laid out in more detail in
Note – It goes without saying that the above programme needs to be accompanied by an equally massive programme of energy conservation in buildings, (the largest users of energy), and a switch to battery powered cars. These will all make any energy future more robust
From Dave Andrews