Let’s pay tribute to the pylons
The development of energy infrastructure is crucial to meeting Norway’s future energy needs and achieving a successful green transition. Investment in power grids and pylons will therefore be very important in the coming years.
We remember the debate about the monster pylons in Hardanger in 2010. Pylons are now being singled out as one of the most important drivers of the green transition. Earlier this year, The Economist had a front page where they encouraged us to hug pylons, not trees. Although we must still protect nature and biodiversity, they point out that massive investment in grid infrastructure is necessary to reach the world’s renewable targets.
Expected energy consumption in Norway will rise significantly in the coming years. This demand will mainly come from the business world, driven by the electrification of industries that currently use oil or gas, as well as the emergence of new industries such as battery production, hydrogen and data centres. Estimates vary considerably, depending on, among other things, how much new, green industrial development will take place, but all point to strong consumption growth both to 2030 and further ahead towards 2050. For example, in its revised long-term plan, Statnett has assumed an increase in consumption of 80 TWh to 2050 in its base scenario. The latter corresponds to an increase of well over 50% from today’s consumption, which implies a need for a strong development of renewable energy.
What does this have to do with the power grid? Electricity is a fresh commodity that must be used the moment it is produced. The main task of the power grid is to balance the generation and consumption of energy. In other words, it must ensure, at all times, that exactly the amount of electricity that is needed is delivered, both to business and to us consumers. This means, firstly, that the power grid must be developed to transport the electricity from where it is produced to where it is actually consumed. It is of little help, for example, to have a wind farm on land or at sea if there are no cables to transport the electricity to where it is needed.
It also means that the network must be the right size to be able to handle different loads, as actual consumption varies from day to day and from hour to hour throughout the year. For example, more electricity is required on a cold January day in the afternoon when houses and homes are heated at the same time as many people are cooking, than on a warm July day. It is similar to streaming video on mobile phones. It is no help to have extra data left in your data package if the speed is not high enough to watch the movie you want when you want it.
Implementing a green shift without sufficient grid capacity is a bit like digitising society without the internet – it doesn’t work. At the same time, grid development is a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem. Forecasts about future power demand, and thereby grid demand, vary a lot, partly as a result of how much new, green industrial development will take place in Norway. At the same time, grid development is a main driver to enable this industry to develop in the first place. And although Norway has ambitious plans for renewable production and, for example, enormous potential for offshore wind, it is worthless if the producers cannot transport the power to those who need it.
What does this mean in practice for the power grid? The Economist estimates that around 1,100 billion dollars are needed annually for the development of network infrastructure globally. This roughly corresponds to the value of the entire Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. These investments must be maintained annually until 2050. In Norway, Pareto estimates that we must invest approximately NOK 160 billion in the power grid up to 2030 if the Energy Commission’s target of 40 TWh of new production is to be reached by 2030.
Even though most of us don’t think electricity pylons are particularly pretty, and cutting the ribbon on a new power cable may not get the most votes, Norway, together with the rest of the world, must go through a comprehensive transition towards carbon neutrality by 2050. Pylons are one of the most important tools we have to achieve this common goal.