Tuesday, 19 April 2011
Enough renewable, zero-carbon energy to power Europe - forever
You may have noticed that the title for this post is rather ambitious. After all, there's no way that's possible right? There's no way that we can get enough energy from renewables to power all of Europe, and it's certainly not possible within, say, the next ten years, right?
As it happens, for the past few years, engineers, climate scientists and higher ups in governments across the EU have been talking about a scheme capable of doing just that.
That my friends is the single European energy grid. I can tell you, as an engineer, just looking at it makes my mouth water. You see, the problem with renewable energy is that it's temperamental. It's all very well having wind farms but what happens on a day without any wind? What do you do with solar panels when the sun goes in? You could try storing energy when you've got a surplus but that's very expensive and inefficient. Whereas coal and oil and nuclear on the other hand keep on producing the same output whatever the weather.
Well, that's where the European energy grid comes in. If you connect all of Europe and North Africa to one single energy grid then that problem disappears. When the wind's not blowing on one side of the continent then it'll be blowing on the other side. And solar panels might not be that good an idea inside the Arctic circle but they're a brilliant idea in the North African desert.
A single, smart grid would link all these energy sources together and distribute the energy according to need. When there's a gale in the North Sea then the UK and Scandinavia can export their energy surplus to the rest of Europe - and when Spain is baking in a hot summer it can export its solar energy surplus to northern Europe.
This isn't just pie in the sky. It's completely feasible. Some of the connections already exist and the completed grid would provide enough power for the whole of Europe and North Africa at least for the next century and probably beyond as more efficient power generation methods become available.
The downside of course is that the grid will be expensive to build. Ultra-efficient transmission of energy over long distances comes at a price. But the various national grids are in desperate need of an overhaul already - they're creaking and need replacing. And the cost of not solving the coming energy crisis will be far greater than the money saved by not embarking on such a project.
A single European energy grid would completely solve energy issues in Europe. And not just in Europe. This model could be adopted all over the world in places like India and South America. It's perfectly possible that this very model could be the one we use to end our requirement for already depleted fossil fuels.
Now there are obviously obstacles that stand in the way - there always are when it comes to projects on this scale. But this isn't a gamble and the benefits are obvious. I was speaking with an MEP the other week and he told me how already the idea is gaining serious traction in the European Parliament.
Schemes like this show just how radically engineering can solve the problems facing the world today. There is nothing like engineering when it comes to monumental, awe-inspiring projects. That's why I decided to study engineering in the first place and it's wonderful to know that the spirit of the great engineers is still alive today and driving projects like this.