Rethinking Europe's energy dependence

  • 2004-04-29
  • By Steven Paulikas
ALMERIA, Spain - Standing in Spain's Tabernas Desert, it is difficult to imagine that this barren scrap of land dotted with cactus and framed by massive boulders is a part of the same Europe to which the Baltic states will soon belong.

Yet distant as it may be from the pine forests of northeastern Europe, or even Brussels, Tabernas serves as home to avant-garde research that may one day transform energy production across the continent.
Concealed deep within the lunar landscape of Tabernas is the Platforma Solar de Almeria, a solar power research facility jointly funded by the Spanish government and the European Commission's directorate general for research.
At the Platforma Solar, scientists from around Europe are investigating advanced technology that uses nothing more than sunbeams and air to create electricity. Researchers have been successful in producing up to three megawatts of electricity—a modest amount, but enough nonetheless to provide ample supply for a small urban area such as the nearby port city of Almeria.
Clearly, with a guaranteed 361 days of sunshine per year, the conditions in the Tabernas Desert are far more amenable to the production of solar power than those under the gray skies of the Baltics. But Platforma Solar is just one of an array of projects funded by the EU that is looking to create a long-term solution to the problem of energy production—an issue at the forefront of the national agendas in all the Baltic capitals.
"Solar power obviously is not meant for places like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but we need to look at the bigger picture," said Wiktor Radlow, head of the energy program at the EC's research directorate general.
According to Radlow, investigations into other types of renewable energy sources, as well as improvements in energy transmission, could in the future solve many of the energy woes that plague the Baltics, including Lithuania's dependence on the condemned Ignalina nuclear power plant and the entire region's vulnerability as a result of energy imports from Russia.
Equally distressing to Baltic energy planners is a EU directive stipulating that 12 percent of electricity production come from renewable resources by 2010.
In the scenario envisioned by EU planners and researchers, renewable energy produced at sites like the Platforma Solar could be transmitted to remote locations like the Baltic states via high-tech grids. Moreover, other technologies currently under development could even be implemented locally or at a location much closer to the Baltic region.
Hans Christian Sorensen is a Danish scientist who heads up the Wave Dragon Project, a cutting-edge program that harnesses the power of sea waves to create electricity. Sorensen has helped design and test the first "wave dragon"—a red metallic device shaped like a boomerang—off the Danish North Sea coast. Using the energy of wave water directly, turbines in the wave dragon are already supplying electricity to coastal Danish towns.
But while the Baltics may enjoy more waves than sun, Sorensen believes that wave electricity technology is still several decades from implementation in the region.
"Right now, the waves in the Baltic Sea are too small to be used by the wave dragon. We're currently looking at locations with bigger waves, like the Portuguese and Welsh coasts," he said.
Another technology with possible applications in the Baltics is hot dry rock energy, a variant of geothermal power that can be implemented even in locations without underground steam.
As opposed to geothermal technology used in places like Iceland, which is blessed with thermal geysers that can be easily transformed into steam for turbines, the hot dry rock method pumps water several kilometers deep into the earth's crust. When the water becomes hot enough, it is sucked back up to the surface, where it subsequently powers turbines.
A hot dry rock test site near Strasbourg is already in operation, yet scientists eager to spread the technology are limited by geology. Underground rock temperature varies drastically across Europe, and at the present time only facilities in areas where the rock reaches a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius at a depth of 5,000 meters can be engineered.
Nonetheless, areas such as northwestern Lithuania contain rock that may in the future be hot enough to support plants such as the one currently in operation in France.
Scientists stress that while large-scale energy harvesting from such seemingly mundane resources as rocks and waves may seem fanciful at the moment, this type of research is designed to probe for long-term solutions to dilemmas that places like the Baltic states are facing immediately.
But for now, the Baltics will have to be content with the comparatively humble windmills that will soon be scattered across the countryside—a modest harbinger of perhaps greater renewable energy projects to come.