European power politics: EU’s energy transition and the question of sovereignty in Europe

Author:  Thomas Sattich

In the beginning Europe’s power system consisted of a limited number of small and isolated power plants in major cities such as Berlin or London. Yet technological advance soon enabled transmission distances over hundreds of kilometres at relatively low losses and costs. The original power circuits therefore expanded from city centres to the suburbs and beyond. Technical standardisation lead to the development of universal systems which unified not only the circuits of individual power stations into one system, but enabled the interconnection of formerly isolated systems of independent plants and companies to more complex power pools.

First cross-border electricity transmission lines date back to the year 1906; these served only local or (micro) regional purposes; yet with transmission distances becoming longer, the question arised, what the optimal dimension of the power system would be: Even though the early power pools remained largely sub-national in the first half of the 20th century, plannings of the future power system soon became a European dimension. Thus, even though debates on super-grids, interconnection, and different forms of electricity generation may appear to be of recent date, they date back to the early days of the European power system in the early 20th century.

The 1920s in particular saw engineers and policy makers debating the value of transnational electric power systems, and with the Great Depression first ideas for a transcontinental super-grid surfaced that foresaw the large-scale expansion of regional grids; these plans – if implemented – would have resulted in the construction of a continental overlay network, in other words an interconnected power system from the Atlantic coast to Poland and Ukraine, and from Norway to Rome, coupling hydro and coal power plants as well as major consumption centres all over Europe.

This approach had a clearly Europeanist undertone and was favoured by the European movement that promoted the idea of supranational cooperation. Raising nationalism during the 1930s, the Second world war, state and sector interests brought these debates, however, to a halt: The economic rational of utilities, and the national perspective of policy makers blocked new initiatives to Europeanise the power system. Instead of a European super-grid therefore an axis between power companies and the nation state emerged that became the central feature of post-war Europe. State-protected companies with an orientation towards national markets henceforth followed a bottom-up and gradual approach to cross-border integration of the power system.

Following the Second world war, power transmission should have been a potential prime candidate for a common European policy; but instead national thinking prevailed, with the focus of the state-company axis resting on investments in the national power systems, and less on cross-border cooperation – a remarkable fact given integrationist thinking at that time. The power system hence remained a national prerogative; where cross-border connections between the national power systems surfaced, their construction and administration developed outside of the evolving European Community institutions.

Only with the oil price shock in the first half of the 1970s a new energy strategy was launched. But even though the oil crisis of the 1970s made energy a highly topical issue, the political situation that favoured national power systems stayed largely unchanged until the mid 1980s. Until that point transnational energy governance stayed in the hands of private stakeholders and organisations. In this context the European Community institutions constituted only an additional player in older transnational infrastructure governance, rather than being the main arena for negotiations

The European power system reflected this weak Community involvement: The interconnection capacity to import/export electricity remained very low and hardly anywhere exceed 10 per cent. Most member states can hence be described as largely self-sufficient in electricity supply. With the Single Market Programme of the 1980s the European Community started, however, to take a much more assertive stance on energy related issues, and eventually pursued a policy aiming at deeper integration of power markets.

Since the mid-1980s internal market programme a number of European policies and legislations aimed at the development of a a common carrier system that is functionally adequate for the free flow and trade of electricity in the envisaged pan-European electricity market. More recently, European Union policy to decarbonise the continent’s economy implied new initiatives towards a pan-European power system. The integration of renewables constitutes one of the most dynamic factors in this regard, as this form of power generation increases the need for a densely intermeshed electricity transmission grid in Europe.

Decarbonisation of Europe’s power system therefore will not only increase the volumes of electricity to be consumed and transported, but also change the geography of the power system. EU policy to increase the use of renewables for power generation hence resulted in a fresh start for the Europeanisation of the power system. Properly thought through, these new initiatives would result in the construction of a so called pan-European SuperSmart grid, that integrates not only the European, but also the North African power system, thereby allowing to generate, transmit and consume electricity flexibly all over Europe.

Decarbonisation of the European power sector hence implies increasingly shared, cross-border use of generation capacities via integrated networks. Yet despite this new impetus for a pan-European power system the reality is, that energy is still of a particularly strategic nature for member states. Moreover, costs and benefits of a policy that aims at deeper integration of the still largely national power systems would be unevenly distributed among the different member states. Even though Europe’s internal electricity grids are ageing and in need of upgrading, a policy that will increase the dependency from neighbouring countries and result in the relocation of power generation capacities to new sites, will therefore will undoubtedly encounter political opposition.

Any initiative in this direction – be it national or European – therefore requires great sensitivity towards possible economic, technical and political side effects, and a high level of mutual trust. The problems associated with a policy to Europeanise the power systems therefore poses questions of a geopolitical nature: Considering the socioeconomic implications of a policy that aims at the integration of still largely national and self-sufficient energy systems in a pan-European infrastructure – a process that will unavoidably produce winners and losers –, Europe’s so called (and supposedly sexy) energy transition looks more like plain old power struggle.

The historical development of Europe’s power transmission infrastructure and its (potential) role in decarbonisation 1921-1945: A European super-grid?

Author: Thomas Sattich

The economic effects of the growing interconnection promised not only to reduce coal consumption for power generation (see above), but also lower electricity prices (Lagendijk 2008:80). Hence the question arised, what the optimal – that is most economical – dimension of the power system would be. In this regard one can observe a confrontation of a top-down and a gradual approach in the early days of the European power grid (Van der Vleuten&Lagendijk 2010b:2045). Even though grids remained largely regional in the first half of the 20th century, first cross-border lines which have been designed in order to enable the transnational operation of power plants for the sake of a better economic mix, for example between Switzerland and France (Lagendijk 2008:47), date back to the year 1906 (Schipper, van der Vleuten 2008:6).

These first cross-border transmission lines served only local or (micro) regional purposes (Van der Vleuten & Lagendijk 2020:2044). Yet with transmission distances becoming longer, the planning of the future power system soon became a European dimension. Particularly in the 1920s engineers and policy makers debated transnational electric power networks (Schipper, van der Vleuten 2008:5); and with the Great Depression first ideas for a continental grid popped up that foresaw the large-scale expansion of regional grids and the construction of a continental overlay network, resulting in an interconnected power system from the Atlantic coast to Poland and Ukraine, and from Norway to Rome, thereby coupling hydro and coal power plants and major consumption centres all over Europe (Lagendijk 2008:80ff).

In other words: Already 80 years ago the European dimension has been perceived as the optimal level for maximal rationalisation of energy resources and electricity generation in a continental power system, interconnected by transmission infrastructure. The question hence was, how this Europeanisation of the power system should look like. Several international organisations of engineers and power suppliers such as CIGRE[1] and UNIPEDE[2] or the International Labor Organization served as platforms for debate. One possibility under discussion was a European overlay network – or supergrid – to interconnect the continent’s major cities and regions. This approach ad a clearly Europeanist undertone and was favoured by the European movement of the time as a tool for greater unity amongst Europeans. Another, approach – favoured by many engineers and power companies – was more technical, and foresaw a more gradual and bottom up development of grids from local and provincial networks to national ones, before arriving at the supranational level (Lagendijk 2008:98).

In a more practical approach, the Organisation for Communications and Transit, a body of the League of Nations, brought forth first attempts to codify cross-border issues in the field of electricity. Two conventions were elaborated: One for the regulation of construction and use of cross-border infrastructure, and another for the common use of hydroelectric resources. Common feature of both conventions was the provision that any choices should be guided by technical, not political considerations or the course of borders; moreover, cross-border electricity transmission should be free from any fees, except for expenses and delivered services (Lagendijk 2008:65).

By the 1930s it had become clear, however, that despite the initiatives to develop the European dimension of the power system, national and sector interests preferred a bottom-up and gradual approach to cross-border integration of the power system (Schipper, van der Vleuten 2008:6). Eventually the company-state axis became central feature of the power system, with the European(ist) approach falling behind the increasing orientation of utilities and states towards the national level as the most promising in terms of markets, financing and regulation (Van der Vleuten, Högselius 2012:81). This development of vertically integrated, state-protected utilities had far-reaching consequences for the development of the European power (transmission) system, as it determined the arena for cross-border issues for the years to come.

However, one must not neglect the fact, that as early as 1930, Austria, Czechoslovak, Danish, Finnish, French, Italian, German, Luxembourg, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish and Swiss utilities were already involved in cross-border transmission of electricity (Schipper, van der Vleuten 2008:6). One can hence conclude, that even though the early plans of a European overlay- or super-grid were not realised, and despite the fact that the national level became the main parameter for grid development, cross-border transmission not only occurred, but grew according to the growing electricity generation (Lagendijk 2008:99).

Hence the development of a cross-border power transmission infrastructure did not stop, yet remained somewhat in the shadow of national grids. Instead of a Europeanisation of infrastructure development, things moved forward in a case-to case-manner. Taking the perspective of power companies at that time, the building of national networks appeared economically viable, whereas international interconnection seemed to be of smaller appeal; and even more so as international financing plans for a European power grid became obsolete due to the economic crisis (Van der Vleuten&Lagendijk 2010b:2045). Where transnational interconnections developed, their governance stayed in the hands of the power industry’s international associations such as CIGRE and UNIPEDE.

[1] Conférence Internationale des Grands Réseaux de Transport d’Énergie Électriques à Très Haute Tension.

[2] Union Internationale des Producteurs et Distributeurs d’Énergie Électrique.