A DECADE ago, there were plans to make Shetland the heart of a European electricity superhighway.

It was 2015 and an ambitious infrastructure plan was in the works, looking into building sub-sea HVDC (high voltage direct current) interconnector cables connecting the likes of Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Shetland and Norway to form an enormous electrical grid in the North Atlantic (below).  

Shetland was the fulcrum. A further cable connecting it to mainland Scotland (currently under construction) could have opened up the possibility for exporting the fruit of the region’s incredible renewable energy potential – from Scotland’s wind energy and Norway’s hydropower to geothermal generation in Iceland – down to Europe and beyond.

Representatives from the so-called North Atlantic Energy Network met in Copenhagen at the end of February 2015 to formulate the idea – leading to a report which said it was “technically possible”, but also noted in its conclusions that there were many challenges including the lack of infrastructure in Greenland.

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The access and utilisation of renewable energy is a “key element in fighting global warming”, the report added, however.

“Mapping the possibilities for future development in this area could be beneficial for all of Europe.”

The idea was pushed in the European Parliament in 2016 by MEPs keen to push for a renewables revolution.

Former Tory minister and then MEP Ian Duncan was one of several politicians arguing for the North Atlantic cables to be given priority funding, making the case for it to be one of the recipients of the massive £1 trillion the European Union was looking to invest in a pan-continental power grid before 2020. 

“The North Sea grid project is shovel-ready,” the current deputy speaker of the House of Lords told Shetland News at the time. “We need to have the money there to unlock the potential.

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“We talk about a common market, so why not a common market for electricity, taking away the barriers that can help us address some of the key problems like energy poverty?”

But, it didn’t happen.

A sub-sea cable is currently under construction between Shetland and mainland Scotland but the idea of a larger network stalled.

Plans for the NorthConnect (the Scotland to Norway interconnector) sub-sea cable also fell through in March 2023, meaning that Scotland still doesn’t have a direct route to connect its electricity network with mainland Europe.

What happened to the North Atlantic electric grid project?

KÁRI Mannbjørn Mortensen is the head of the Faroe Islands Energy Department and was involved in the drafting of the North Atlantic Energy Network report.

“It showed that the project was really possible - both technically and economically - if you wanted to do it,” he told the Sunday National.

“And then we didn't hear so much more after that.”

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Mortensen said there was “enormous potential” and that there were positive discussions with Shetland Islands Council but he never talked with “higher-level politicians” in Scotland or the UK.

Dr Daria Shapovalova, a senior lecturer in Energy Law at Aberdeen University, told the Sunday National that Brexit was certainly one of the factors behind it not going ahead.

“A project like that would require some strong political and commercial leadership,” she said.

“And Brexit definitely did not help in terms of completely diverting attention to a whole range of different, difficult issues that needed to be dealt with and decided at the time.”

The senior lecturer added that it’s also important to highlight the challenges mentioned in the report drafted by the North Atlantic Energy Network.

She said: “From my reading of that report, I don't see a definitive yes – this would solve a lot of issues for us, let’s build it tomorrow.

“The report says aspects are technically and commercially feasible, but there are some caveats to that.”

Can a North Atlantic electric grid still happen?

SHAPOVALOVA thinks it isn’t likely the plans – at least as they were originally envisaged – will come about.

“Politically, it's a very different time now. That report was done just before Brexit - it was a very different energy market landscape,” she explained.

“The whole idea was that you have these isolated places with quite high renewable energy potential, but different kinds of potential – hydropower in Greenland, hydro and geothermal in Iceland, and offshore wind in Scotland.

“And if we just connect it all, then we can help each other out. Send the offshore wind to Iceland in the winter and take the hydropower back in the summer.”

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The academic said that the energy crisis has also impacted the plans.

“Perhaps there's some joy to be had in that isolation for countries like Iceland,” she explained.

“If your energy market or your electricity prices are linked to gas like we have here in the UK, we have record high electricity prices for the past two years, whereas with Iceland, for example, their prices have held at a much more stable level.

“But we'll see what the future brings with energy market reform in the UK.”

Shapovalova said that if the UK and Scotland are serious about decarbonising their electricity, interconnections like the North Atlantic grid project are “key” if we want to maximise the efficiency of how we use renewable energy, especially given the lack of large-scale and cheap renewable energy storage.

“We see that already with interconnections between the UK (via England) and its European neighbours. When the wind is blowing, we are exporting that electricity to France, to Belgium, to the Netherlands,” she said.

“Whereas, when we are running low on wind, we can get some off France – nuclear electricity, for example – to supplement that.”

Shapovalova added that, in that sense, the project is “already there in many ways”.

“But there is also emphasis today on the network and cooperation – not only through technical interconnection and expertise sharing but also through the acknowledgement of shared challenges that exist, of the climate crisis and energy transition,” she added.

The academic also noted that Scotland  has to acknowledge the "limits of devolution" and the decisions Scottish ministers can and can't take on energy matters. 

The supply of electricity - including the operation of interconnectors - is currently a reserved matter, for example. The initiative to get this project off the ground may have to come from all parties. 

Mortensen, meanwhile, still believes that it is “realistic” that the North Atlantic electric grid project can still happen, mentioning recent presentations he has delivered at Arctic Circle conferences.

“It could be enormous. We have been working on it. The plans are really ambitious,” he said.

“People aren’t ready for it but they are listening.”

In the shorter term, the Faroese energy chief is excited about future collaboration between Scotland and other North Atlantic partners.

‘I'm just amazed at how far the Scottish have come in developing offshore wind because the plans there and licenses given are miles ahead," he said.

“I'm also active in the Nordic Council of Ministers and we decided last year to do a desktop study with all the Nordic countries, maybe including Scotland, to look at rules for developing offshore wind in the region.

“Scotland has an advantage right now and if it is going to build it out, it will get good cooperation from its North Atlantic neighbours.”

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Energy minister Gillian Martin (above) told The Sunday National that the North Sea has the potential to be the "battery of Europe". 

The SNP MSP added that the Scottish Government are committed to working with industry and partner countries to have a "fully interconnected North Sea grid" – opening up opportunities for the export of Scottish renewable energy and helping to "future-proof" the energy system.

She added: “Scotland produced more renewable electricity than it consumed in 2022, demonstrating the enormous potential we have to grow a green economy. It also demonstrates the growing opportunity we have to export electricity, together with hydrogen, as our capabilities increase still further in the coming years.

“We are working at pace to become a first mover in hydrogen exports and would like to see direct pipelines between Scotland and Europe considered as part of the hydrogen supply corridors explored by the European Hydrogen Backbone initiative.

“Our focus must be on giving investors, businesses and industry confidence in Scotland’s energy capabilities and potential for future growth and export. We have set out hugely ambitious targets for renewable energy and hydrogen and are working closely with our energy sector and our many close partners in Europe to drive forwards research, knowledge exchanges and working agreements to position Scotland as a trusted trading partner and a recognised leader in the global energy transition.”