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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Alex Coulton

A European Supergrid for the UK - a balanced interconnector mix

Alex Coulton

A European Supergrid for the UK - a balanced interconnector mix

As the third largest electricity market in Europe and as potential hub for north-sea offshore wind energy, the UK has a central role to play in the European Supergrid, a project that seeks to connect low carbon resources to centres of demand through large capacity electricity interconnectors.

At the heart of the UK Government’s current Energy Policy lies ‘Energy Security’ with a single dominant principle; diversification of the generation mix, a strategic view that has not been applied to cross-border interconnectors. Appling this principle to interconnectors, this thesis seeks to draw the picture of a balanced ‘interconnector mix’ for the UK and compare these results to the current and planned interconnector projects. Another facet of this research investigates the link between interconnector capacity and offshore wind deployment and, using a variety of scenarios, attempts to establish a ‘no regret’ strategy for a UK interconnector policy.

This research highlights that the body of knowledge necessary to develop a clear picture is dislocated, incomplete and generally not directly relevant to the UK. The most elaborate benefit assessment model for interconnectors, produced by a 2.5 year, €4.3m REALISEGRID initiative, covers the majority of Europe with the exception of the UK. Consequently, this work includes a Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA) model based on Energy Policy trinity of Economics, Energy Security and Environmental Considerations which translates into the following criteria: Social Welfare Benefits, System Adequacy, Generation Mix, System Benefits, Correlation with UK offshore wind developments and Access to New Renewable Energy Sources. The model output is a percentage breakdown of interconnector capacity to the following regions: Scandinavia, Central Western Europe, Iberia, Ireland and Iceland.

Preliminary findings suggest that large capacity interconnection is a ‘limited risk policy’. Most projects, at initial interconnection capacity, seem to provide sufficient standalone Social Welfare and Security of Supply benefits to the UK public to justify their implementation. Additionally, interconnectors provide flexibility to the UK’s de-carbonization strategy by increasing the benefits of offshore wind projects and/or providing opportunity to outsource renewable energy production.

The concept of a balanced ‘interconnector mix’ is new. The MCA model is also represents a novel approach to interconnector planning and includes criteria that are rarely considered in combination before and therefore highlights trans-disciplinary knowledge and information gaps. Finally, I hope that my most important contribution will be in setting the foundations for further research in the UK on this subject because on the one hand, the level of investment required in electricity infrastructure to 2020 in Europe is in the order of €1trillion, and on the other hand the European Supergrid appears essential for the UK and Europe’s transition towards a sustainable society.