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.

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