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A Europe powered only with renewable energy

This vision was launched in 1992 from within the world-leading power equipment company ABB.

Europe can be powered by wind (mainly offshore) and by solar power (mainly as concentrating solar power) in North Africa and southern Europe. That was the futuristic vision of Gunnar Asplund in 1992, as shown in the map.

“It was not popular within ABB,” says Asplund in 2016.

Swedish Asea merged in 1988 with Swiss Brown Boveri to create ABB. At the time, ABB tried to market nuclear reactors of Swedish origin (eventually without success) and increased its nuclear power activities by the acquisition of US Combustion Engineering. ABB also developed PFBC coal and lignite plants at the time, but had no real stake in wind and solar.

By the year 2000, ABB would divest all power plant construction. But that was eight years ahead.

The idea of a gigantic grid and big centralised solar plants and big offshore wind power plants was also controversial in the NGO community. “Small is beautiful” had a strong resonance. ABB reached out to garner support from Swedish NGOs, but with no real success.

Asplund’s idea was that most of the cost for electricity is for generation, and that transport of the power even for very long distances, need not add more than 25 per cent. Power should be produced where conditions are the best: most wind power offshore or at the coast, solar where the sun shines most, and all connected by many, long power lines.

Storage was to be supplied by existing hydropower in Norway, Sweden, Iceland and continental Europe.

It took some nerve to claim by 1992 that wind and solar power could be the future, even in a 100-year perspective. All the wind power in the world produced less than 5 TWh in 1992, solar only 0.5 TWh, adding up to the equivalent of a single nuclear reactor. Offshore wind was nowhere in 1992 and was of no significance until the 2010s. Nuclear power produced 2,100 TWh, and was still on the increase. So was fossil power almost everywhere in the world.

The 1992 vision is still controversial, but nobody doubts that wind and solar have a bright future.

The belief in renewables went hand-in-glove with the emergent technology that Asplund led at ABB Ludvika: HVDC light, the slimmer version of the high-voltage direct current cable.

To the casual observer, the map of cables all over Europe looked as if the purpose was to maximise sales of high-voltage cables.

This was indeed not so far-fetched.

“The vision served to motivate our development work,” says Asplund frankly.

HVDC Light was first tested in the late 1990s and has since been a success story for ABB, sometimes exactly the way Asplund envisioned.

The technology is indeed impressive. Asplund has a sample in his office, about 12 cm in diameter. Such a cable can conduct 1000 megawatts, the output of a nuclear reactor. HVDC is well suited not only for connecting point A to point B, but also for creating a grid, like a spider’s web.

HVDC is used for bringing offshore wind power in the North Sea to the UK and connecting Norway to the Netherlands, Germany and the UK so intermittent power can be balanced by Scandinavian hydro. ABB has also built a 2,000 kilometre 800 kV transmission line in China so hydro in one part of the country can supply power to other parts, and balance wind and solar power, where China leads the world.

So the 1992 concept works, and 100 per cent renewables is possible.

“By 2092 I hope it has looked like that for a long time,” says Asplund.

Being an impatient person, he has moved on to another futuristic field: CO2-free transport.

There are not enough biofuels in most countries. There is a rich resource of renewable electricity, but electric cars are heavy, expensive and take a long time to charge.

His solution: electric highways, where electric cars can run on direct-feed power from the road, and recharge batteries at the same time.

His company Elways (“el” means electricity in Swedish) works with the practical aspects of designing rails and connectors, and has been granted 17 patents and filed for several more. The company has received substantial support from the Swedish Energy Agency.

The cost for the car-owner, for connectors, may be a couple of hundred euros.

“It would be extremely expensive to have all roads in Sweden rebuilt for direct feed. To have it for the big roads, not so expensive,” he says.

This second future looks a lot like the first one: an all-electric all-European spider-web.

Fredrik Lundberg

The scenario from 1992., with 700 GW from solar, 300 GW from wind and 200 GW from hydro.

The scenario from 1992., with 700 GW from solar, 300 GW from wind and 200 GW from hydro.

Vision 1992, actual results 2015

Share of renewables. In 2015, the 28 nations that are now the EU member states (EU-28) produced 29 per cent of their electricity from renewables. This is far from 100 per cent, but a big improvement on the 15 per cent in 1992. Renewable electricity in 1992 was almost exclusively hydro. Hydro production has not changed much and totalled 337 TWh in 2015. The “other” renewables (than hydro) have grown from 21 TWh in 1992 to 601 TWh in 2015. Most of this increase took place after 2008.

Which renewables? Wind and solar have developed roughly as in the scenario. Biomass, not in the scenario, is of some importance, and produced more electricity than solar in Europe in 2015. Biomass, and the so far insignificant tidal and geothermal power are not intermittent and do not need long power lines. Wave power, which was not in the scenario, but would fit well in a super grid, has still not taken off.

Wind. Wind power has, so far, mainly been on land. It is all a part of a centralised grid. Turbines are much larger, more efficient and more reliable than in 1992. The offshore wind parks are even larger, and are connected pretty much according to the 1992 map.

But wind power has mainly grown outside the utilities. Small community ownership of wind parks has however been of importance for acceptance of wind power, at least in Germany.

Solar. In the 1990s and the 2000s the main potential of solar power was often thought to lie in concentrating thermal power (CSP) based on systems of lenses or mirrors.

Heat can be stored, so output can match demand and also supply power at night. CSP promised higher efficiency than photovoltaics, at least in environments with few clouds, such as in deserts. But CSP requires large-scale installations and huge investments in one steep step. This essentially did not happen. There are a few big CSP plants in Spain and Morocco, but so far it has been a sideshow to photovoltaics (PV).

Most of the PV capacity is decentralised: rooftop or small ground-level solar farms. Some of the output is used locally so as to reduce the electricity consumption. The distance between producer and user is, in this sense, not long.

The large-scale installation (utility scale) of PV is growing even faster than rooftop solar and is now the top segment in many countries. Even so, the scale is modest compared to nuclear, coal and offshore wind.

Then again: practically all PV is grid-connected, so the millions of panels add up to big effects on national and European grids and markets. Unlike the 1992 map, much solar is in central Europe (Germany and the UK) rather than in the sunnier south.

Cables from Africa. This has not happened, but the idea lived on in the gigantic DESERTEC project, which was essentially abandoned after the disarray following the Arab Spring, the disintegration of Syria and Libya and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. One power line (though AC, not HVDC) between Europe and Africa has been in operation since 1997, between Morocco and Spain, later extended with a second cable, and a third is underway. So far the cables have been mainly used for Spanish exports of power.

Cables from Iceland. Iceland has huge hydro and geothermal resources, which could be used to balance other renewables. The cables are still not there, but a UK-Iceland government task force was set up in October 2015.

Other cables. Lithuania-Sweden went into operation in 2016, and the UK-Norway link is under construction. There are fairly recent interconnections between Norway-Netherlands-UK, Finland-Estonia, UK-France (several), Italy-Greece, and Estonia-Finland-Sweden.

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