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Has Europe Seen the Light on Renewable Energy?

Visionary accountants. There's an apparent oxymoron. To many, the all-powerful bean counters have destroyed much of my generation's imaginativeness, initiative, and enterprise. If economics is the dismal science, accountancy must be the cheerless profession.

Yet one of the most visionary - there is no other word - reports recently to cross my desk comes from a firm whose name is almost synonymous with accountancy. Just published, virtually unnoticed, by PricewaterhouseCoopers, it is the sort of tome you would expect from an idealistic green group. But given its source, and the practicality of its approach, it should be taken seriously.

It forms a blueprint for a Europe powered entirely by renewable energy - and yet more prosperous, more mobile, and using more electricity than now. Impossible, you may well say: vegan pie in the sunlit sky. How could a modern, industrial, highly developed continent even begin to survive if it was wholly dependent on such unreliable sources?

And yet the report not only recognises the inherent volatility and unpredictability of winds that only blow part of the time, and of sunlight that only reaches us on clear days, but tackles these issues head on: it says renewables could provide at least as secure an energy system as anything we have today. And, this week, an equally blue-chip study produced by a group including McKinsey, Imperial College, and the European Climate Foundation will come to much the same conclusion.

The secret, both studies report, lies in two concepts: diversity and connectivity. They envisage a continent-wide "supergrid" linking up the areas with "the best sites for each technology", as PricewaterhouseCoopers puts it, "regardless of national or regional borders". Thus the North Sea would contribute electricity from windpower, for example, the Iberian peninsular would generate it from the sun, and Norway and Austria would provide hydropower. The diverse sources would be connected by high-voltage, direct-current power lines, which would run mainly on existing national grid networks and be linked by undersea cables - much more efficient than our existing alternating-current lines.


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