At the recent European Offshore Wind Summit in London, Mainstream Renewable Power continued to blaze the trail for a pan-European Supergrid. In the words of its Chief Executive, Dr Eddie O'Connor, "To deliver on our greenhouse gas reductions in Europe by 2050, we need to build between 1 million MW and 1.6 million MW of offshore wind over the next forty years – the scale and complexity of which is unprecedented. Such a vast undertaking requires a European framework. But it will need the genius and imagination of the private sector to innovate and deliver."
So what is the Supergrid and what are the legal challenges that need to be overcome to achieve this project?
The Supergrid can be defined as "An electricity transmission system, mainly based on direct current, designed to facilitate large scale sustainable power generation in remote areas for transmission to centres of consumption, one of whose fundamental attributes will be the enhancement of the market in electricity”. What does that mean in European terms? In order for Europe to achieve its targetted 80% reduction in carbon emmissions at a time when energy demand is predicted to increase by up to 50% by 2050, the renewables sector will need to play a major role. Given the problems in securing planning consent in a heavily populated Europe, this means deploying a large number of renewables projects offshore.
At the Summit, Dr. O’Connor suggested a need to build between 1 million MW and 1.6 million MW of offshore wind over the next forty years.
Any pan-European project will need some form of governance framework at an international level. There are precedents for this in the gas industry in particular and some in the electricity sector that have been less successful. One proposal, promoted by Mainstream, is to use the enhanced co-operation procedure under the EU treaty. Article 43 of the treaty permits member states to bring forward areas for agreement by only eight or more member states. This is intended to allow certain member states to fast track particular areas where integration across the whole of the EU may prove very difficult to deliver.
So, eight member states with a keen interest in the building of an offshore Supergrid could seek to persuade the European Commission and Council to promote a form of 'super' offshore System Operator whose role would be to identify which assets are needed where and when and to provide a regulatory framework within which commercial interests could bid for those opportunities and make an appropriate return.
On paper, it sounds simple - in practice, any form of international regulation can take years to develop and tends to be incremental in nature. Successful use of the enhanced cooperation mechanism could certainly provide the impetus for swifter and more radical change at a European level.
A note of caution, however - enhanced co-operation is intended as a last resort mechanism and has only been tested in earnest in the field of divorce law where the EU were unsupportive of splitting the EU on such a sensitive issue.
If the engineers can meet the technical challenges of building a Supergrid in European waters over the next 40 years, however, surely it will be possible for the lawmakers to find an imaginative and practical solution that lets us build a solid governance framework for offshore electricity development quickly and effectively over the next five years.