The historical development of Europe’s power transmission infrastructure and its (potential) role in decarbonisation

Author: Thomas Sattich

Still, there is no such thing as the European network Vincent Lagendijk

The role of electricity grids in the power system is largely explained by the fact that storage of electricity is very demanding and costly; put differently: Power generation has to follow changing demand, for example between night and day, or workday and weekend, in order to keep main voltage stable. In order to avoid hazardous fluctuations in the system, system operators therefore keep relatively large and flexible generation capacities in reserve, which the operation of power plants a cost-intensive business. Power transmission infrastructure is one of several ways to optimise this system, as the interconnection of regional subgroups in the power system provides system operators with more flexibility to keep the network stable.

At one end, interconnection helps to limit periods of very low and high demand, as bigger systems feature a flatter load curve than small ones ; on the other, it increases the capacity to react to (local) peak consumption. A more interconnected system therefore helps to limit the need for reserve capacity not only of individual power plants, but of the entire system; Moreover interconnection allows system operators and engineers to obtain a better economic mix between different forms of electricity generation and to make more efficient use individual generation units. The integration of renewables constitutes one of the most dynamic factors in this regard, and hence triggers intensive debates in Europe and elsewhere.

But even though these debates on super-grids, interconnection capacities, grid fluctuations etc. may appear to be of recent date, they are in fact far from being new and date back to the early days of the power system around the late 19th and early 20th century. Of course the power system nowadays is much more complex compared to its beginnings; but many elements of the power system still serve the same purposes. Past debates about the ideal scope of the developing power systems therefore largely resemble today’s deliberations on the role of electricity grids in decarbonisation and the integration of renewables, and therefore provide valuable insights.

This is especially true when it comes to interregional and cross-border interconnection, which did not fundamentally change in their purpose, but still serve the same tasks as 100 years ago. Two items stand out in this regard: Load management on the one hand, and the mix of hydroelectric and thermal power plants on the other. Both date back to the early years of the power system in Europe and still mark two very important cornerstones of the power system. In order to gain a better understanding of the role power networks in EU decarbonisation policy the following section therefore provides a short overview over the historical development of the European power transmission infrastructure, its governance structures, and the development of EU involvement.

The following blog entries aim at a clarification of the power grid’s historical role in the system of power generation, transmission and consumption. This approach is basically based on the assumption, that the early days of a developing system can reveal much about today’s state of affairs: The system may have become more complex, yet it still rests on the same foundations and comparable initial conditions, as 100 years ago. These foundations therefore may be very helpful to understand at what end decarbonisation policy could start to change the system, and what role power transmission infrastructure could play in this process.

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