Mediterranean Sea Could Become a “Supergrid”

A common argument against renewables is that “the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.” While energy storage in the form of batteries, pumped storage, and other emerging methods is certainly part of the solution, but it’s not the whole solution. The truth is that there are some regions that are far better for solar and/or wind than others, so getting power from those places that have a near-constant supply to others is a great way to solve the problem for a lot cheaper. But what happens when there is a large body in the way, like the Mediterranean Sea?

We already move other forms of energy, especially oil and gas, over vast distances from where they’re abundant or cheaper to where people need them. Ships, pipelines, and even dangerous train shipments of fossil fuels are common. Differing regional energy needs and supplies are the obvious driver, but when you add on geopolitical issues like the Ukraine War and fears of letting Putin have Europe by the shorts, you get a lot of demand for new pipelines.

But there is opposition to the planned EastMed pipeline, especially from the United States. Europe has green energy plans, which would reduce the need for Russian oil and gas without keeping fossil fuels around or investing big money into new pipelines that could otherwise go towards renewables.

This is where the EuroAsia Interconnector comes in. Instead of building pipelines to move gas that gets converted into electricity and heating for homes, the idea here is to move solar energy from Israel, where it’s abundant, to places in Europe that couldn’t get as much power for as cheap. For example, Germany has similar solar energy potential as Alaska, which means you pay a lot more for each kWh of energy produced via solar. Why? Because the panels get less light in general and there’s more frequent cloud cover.

You can get an overview of the EuroAsia Interconnector here, but let’s take a quick look at what they’re doing. The high-voltage DC line will start in Israel and go underwater to Cyprus, an island in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Next, it leaves Cyprus and goes along the seafloor to Heraklion, a Greek island closer to Italy. Finally, the connector will go from there to somewhere in Italy, tying Israeli grids and island grids to the main European grid.

The wires will be sized to move up to 2,000 MW, or 2 gigawatts of maximum power at any given time. That may not seem like much (two is a small number), but in reality that’s 2 billion watts. 1 gigawatt is over 3 million solar panels running at max power, or 364 utility-scale wind turbines. It’s enough to power 110 million LED bulbs, or the equivalent of over 9,000 Nissan LEAFs at full “throttle” (or enough energy to charge 166,000 at Level 2 speeds). And, that’s only half of what this new energy interconnect project could power.

Not only will this help move renewables, but it will also allow electricity generated from methane in Israel to reach Europe. This may sound like a complicated way to get gas energy from Israel to Europe (gas to electricity vs just sending gas to existing European gas plants), but the advantage it has over a gas pipeline is that it can change its energy mix over time from gas to renewables instead of only being able to move gas. This gives us better future options.

Obviously, 2 megawatts isn’t enough to power Europe. It’s going to still be necessary for Europe itself to come up with its own renewables. While that’s happening, there will still be a lot of oil and gas coming from around the world, including Russia.

The Challenge Of Short-Term Thinking

One of the big problems this project and the other HVDC lines that will be needed faces is geopolitics. If any region could be counted on to provide energy without potentially weaponizing other regions’ dependence on it, problems would be a lot easier to tackle. Instead of finding the places with the best sun and wind close to where the energy is needed, the lines must be routed to sources the receiving country can trust to not screw them later. This means longer lines, more loss, and a lot more construction expense.

It’s easy to figure out who your friends are today, but things change over time. While Israel is often seen as a western ally, that’s not a sure bet in the future as the global economy shifts and the influence of countries like Russia and China expand. I’m not trying to say that Israel can’t be trusted, but the country does have a history of watching out for itself like any rational country would, and will do what it needs to do for itself.

The problem with having to build HVDC lines along political rather than engineering or scientific lines is that it presents a shifting target over decades or centuries. This means long-term investments can be difficult to plan and execute, or keep running once the money is sunk into the cost of the infrastructure.

While interconnects like this are very important, we need to also be working on making more countries energy independent and not depending on shifting alliances and even borders for their continued use of renewable electricity. In other words, running big wires is not a substitute for creating local renewable resources. Perhaps more importantly, resilience needs to be there for more than just the different ways the geopolitical winds may blow. With climate change, we’re seeing more severe weather, which can be a challenge to communities. Changing needs for energy, the need to field more electric vehicles, and the need to heat homes with something other than gas, all complicate this further.

For all of these reasons, countries need to move beyond short-term political thinking and move toward long-term investments in renewables, resilient communities, and clean transport. This would be a particularly bad time for a major world war or other developments that get in the way of rational rather than political planning.

Featured image by NASA (Public Domain)


 

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