Powering people, empowering nature – the 6th European grid conference
Alice Collier, Climate Change Officer for the RSPB, explains why power grid development is essential for a European renewables revolution, and how BirdLife is working to make sure that implementation is in harmony with nature.
At the end of September, I represented BirdLife Europe and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) at the 6th European Grid Conference. If you’re wondering how a conference on electricity grid networks is related to bird protection – aside from the perennial sight of birds perched on power lines – I wouldn’t blame you. Though it may not be the most immediately obvious of connections, grid infrastructure is incredibly relevant to the future of our feathered friends. Indeed, it’s incredibly relevant for all our wildlife.
Climate change presents one of the greatest long-term threats to nature, and it is already starting to have noticeable negative impacts: loss of coastal habitat, increased sea temperatures disrupting food webs, and changes in weather patterns causing population crashes (see recent UK report – State of Nature 2016). A renewables revolution is essential if we are to cut emissions. However, Europe’s renewable energy sources are typically located far away from its main centres of demand (our towns and cities) and the issue of long distance power transmission raises its own set of problems.
While energy from small-scale generation can be used locally (e.g. rooftop solar), it encounters two big stumbling blocks: (i) it simply can’t satisfy the gargantuan energy demand collectively posed by European homes, businesses and industry, and (ii) surplus energy risks going to waste because peak generation times do not necessarily coincide with peak consumption hours. In the classic case of solar power, most people are not at home at the height of the midday sun. A well-functioning grid network is therefore vital in order to ensure that we can balance an increasingly variable renewable energy mix with our energy demands.
That said, we must also ensure that any grid expansion is done in harmony with nature. New powerlines can jeopardize many species due to habitat loss and ensuing displacement; birds, in particular, face the threat of possible collision and electrocution. We argue, therefore, that grid development should, if possible, minimize its calls for new powerlines. Failing that, any new network routes must avoid ecologically sensitive areas and the pylons should be designed in a way which reduces the risk of collision and electrocution as much as possible.
As a founding member of the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) – a unique collaboration of European NGOs and transmission system operators (TSOs) – BirdLife is at the forefront of the push for environmentally sensitive grid development. For the past 6 years, the RGI has organised an annual European Grid Conference. This year’s outing, ‘Sustainability and the Power Grid’ (on 29th September), was particularly interesting as it focussed on the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of this issue. Notably, it was great to hear Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, talking about his vision of a sustainable Energy Union. In particular, he was clear that we “need to make sure renewables are better integrated” in Europe and that we “need to move our conversation on to how we are going to implement” this: it is no longer a question of whether we will have more renewables connecting to the grid in the future, but a question of how we are going to make it happen.
Although there are still barriers to address, and risks to wildlife will always be a potential concern with any infrastructure development, I left the conference feeling positive. The spirit of innovation in the room was really quite something, and it was very encouraging to see so many people – from both the private and public sector – determined make sure that Europe’s grid network empowers people and nature alike.
 Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, speech at the 6th European Grid Conference, 29 September 2016, Brussels.
Photo credits: Pylon concept designs for the future
Left: Migrant Mast is a design by Rever & Drage Architects, Norway.
Right: Twist is a design by Andersen & Sigurdsson Architects, Denmark
We would like to thank Grid Expo for the use of their photos. To see more concept designs on ‘the future and aesthetics of the grid’, please visit http://gridexpo.eu/category/pylondetails/