22 December 2008—Could a set of energetic volunteers deputized by the European Commission (EC) break through Europe’s most stubborn power-grid bottlenecks? A quick start this year by one of these high-profile interconnection coordinators for priority energy projects suggests they might. In just six months, Mario Monti, best known for challenging Microsoft as Europe’s competition czar in the 1990s, negotiated a new transmission line between Spain and France that had been stalled for 15 years.
But some observers—including one of Monti’s fellow EC grid mediators—say the volunteers’ role is at best just a transition toward more robust European institutions with the expertise and the mandate to coordinate transmission planning.
Hanging in the balance is far more than the EC’s long-standing dream of a unified and competitive European electricity market. Grid experts say that the bold energy plan approved by European leaders this month—a doubling of renewable energy by 2020 to slash greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels—cannot be achieved without major new investments in regional transmission capacity.
France and Spain’s constrained electrical interconnection is a case in point. Spain has Europe’s second-largest wind-power capacity and is aggressively adding solar power, such as the solar thermal plant that started up last month in Andalucía. Accommodating wind and solar, which produce fluctuating amounts of power, would be considerably easier if more of it could flow north to France. But at present, the power-exchange capacity over the Pyrenees is less than 3 percent of peak power consumption—far below the EC’s 10 percent target.
The problem is so severe that in 2002, after already a decade of inaction on the France-Spain interconnection, European energy ministers declared the need for new lines across the Pyrenees to be at ”maximum priority level.” A year later, however, French authorities rejected a proposal for a 400-kilovolt line over the Eastern Pyrenees amid vociferous local opposition.