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Europe's supergrid gets a big boost

Heribert Proepper / AP file

Ten European countries agree to develop an electricity grid to deliver wind power generated in the North Sea across Europe.

Ten European countries have signed an agreement to generate electricity from the waters of the North Sea and deliver it across the continent. Such a supergrid would boost the development of offshore wind farms in a notoriously rough and stormy region -- a resource that advocates say is "enormous."

"It even surpasses the energy equivalent of petrol reserves in the Middle East," according to a statement from the Belgian government announcing last Friday's signing.


The deal may provide the European Union with smoother sailing toward its ambitious goals of opening up electricity markets for cross-border competition and achieving a 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions, Colin Macilwain pointed out in Nature News.

But first, engineers working on the estimated nearly $30 billion project must overcome technical challenges -- such as exactly how they'll ship electricity through undersea cables for hundreds of miles.

Traditional transmission grids operate on alternating current (AC), but a subsea grid would use direct current (DC), due to losses that occur when the aluminum or copper conductor is buried.

"In effect, the cable and surrounding earth form a capacitor, draining power from the AC lines, and rendering them useless over long distances," writes Macilwain. "So a subsea grid has to be DC -- posing a challenge for electrical engineers who lack the technological tools they have developed for AC power."

Another problem is that circuit breakers don't exist for high-voltage DC. One potential solution is a high-voltage DC converter being developed by Dragan Jovcic at the University of Aberdeen.

In addition to technical hurdles, the North Sea supergrid project must wrangle with political and regulatory issues. Some European nations, including Germany, are throwing more of their weight behind the Desertec project, which aims to bring solar and wind power generated in the Sahara to Europe.

Take a look at these stories for more about offshore wind power projects:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).