Between Climate Change and Geopolitics, are Europe’s Electric Grids Secure?
The dramatic collapse of the electric grid in Texas, which at one point left millions without power and braving freezing temperatures in one of the warmest parts of the United States, offers a chilling example of the havoc short-term energy disruptions can wreak on entire regions of the globe. The events in Texas also provide another reminder to the European Union, which narrowly escaped a continent-wide blackout of its own during a cold snap last month, of the importance of protecting European electric grids from enemies foreign, domestic – and natural.
Between rapid changes in climatic conditions and the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, the potential for major disruptions impacting one of the single most vital components of European critical infrastructure will only grow over the years to come. Renewables are not to blame for these growing risks; instead, European officials and regulators face the task of reforming the infrastructure these new energy sources will plug into. While the EU brings records amounts of renewable energy capacity online, the continental grid is still built around coal, nuclear, and gas.
Nor are the dangers to EU grids limited to natural events. In sharp contrast to the attention being paid by the European institutions to the EU’s dependency on countries like Russia for natural gas, the risks associated with using components provided by potentially hostile overseas actors to build Europe’s growing renewable energy infrastructure, including the same companies at the forefront of the EU telecoms debate, have yet to be addressed.
European electricity vulnerable to climate change
In looking at the catastrophic failure of the Texas grid, what lessons should those responsible for building and managing Europe’s electric grids take away? One of the most immediate might be the importance for Europe’s energy union of an electricity network able to respond to continent-wide shifts in consumption, ensuring new renewable sources can feed into European power lines and that spare capacity will be able to make up for sudden shocks or technical failings in any one part of the Union. To that end, the European Commission set a 10% electricity interconnection target for all member states to reach by 2020, with a view towards setting a new 15% target for 2030.
The Texas Interconnection, by contrast, is almost entirely isolated from the rest of the U.S. electric grid, purely as a result of decisions made by Texas officials, ensuring the state would remain an electricity island with few outside connections to make up for failures at Texas power plants. This does not mean Europe’s existing level of interconnectivity necessarily protects it from the type of extreme weather that has knocked much of Texas’ electric grid offline. As a 2019 report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) makes clear, “extreme climate-related events” such as floods, storms, heatwaves, and droughts are expected to increase in Europe over the course of this century, with their impact on European energy infrastructure ultimately inflicting billions of euros in direct costs each year.
The EEA report also points to the longer-term significance of climate change for Europe’s production and consumption of electricity, beyond individual instances of extreme weather. Across Southern Europe, climatic changes such as the shifting availability of water will hinder just about every form of power generation, including both thermal and renewable energies, all while feeding higher demand and increasing strain on transmission and distribution grids.
Potential risks posed by outside actors
Evidently, the continent’s best hope for mitigating the worst impacts of climate change lies in a rapid transition to renewable energies and a reduction in global carbon emissions. As European countries invest in expanding solar energy capacity to replace traditional fuels, though, key components in the solar panel systems being installed across Europe are being provided by state-owned foreign companies such as Huawei. The Chinese company is, for example, a leading producer of the inverters essential for converting electricity generated by solar panels from direct current (DC) into an alternating current (AC) fit for use by an electric grid.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the dominant role played by China and companies such as Huawei in the solar energy supply chain has already set off alarm bells. On the heels of the debate over Huawei’s role in constructing 5G networks, many U.S. policymakers have turned their attention to Huawei’s solar inverters, pointing to the potential danger of cyberattacks exploiting unsecured components at the heart of both large-scale and small-scale solar energy systems. In the face of legislative and regulatory scrutiny, Huawei exited the U.S. market for solar inverters – but continues to sell them to Europe.
Given that the European view of Huawei’s role in telecommunications networks is gradually aligning with the American one, it is natural to ask whether the EU’s collective perception of the cyber risks associated with Huawei’s solar inverters – which connect to the electricity grid – will follow a similar course. As Tom Ridge, who served as the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, wrote in 2018: “every device connected to the Internet creates a potential pathway for foreign governments and other malevolent actors to compromise essential networks — particularly the electric power grid.” As part of the broader transition to the Internet of Things (IoT), core electric components such as inverters are connected to global networks, opening the door to outside actors who could seek to manipulate electric grids or, in a worst-case scenario, create disruptions which knock them offline.
As the EU and national governments evaluate vulnerabilities in their critical infrastructure, the threats to electric grids are clearly manifold. Texas offers a clear example of the dangers represented by climate change, but futureproofing Europe’s electricity supplies will require taking a fully holistic view of potential risks.