An article by: Pasquale Quito Terracciano

In the context of the globalization crisis, the guarantee of energy supplies is becoming less and less obvious. Inter-regional electrical interconnectors are an option that can combine continuity and diversification.

Globalization and European integration

Globalization is a currently discussed phenomenon that is everywhere receding under the blows of geopolitical polycrisis. The outlook remains cautious, even though many now take the fragmentation of the “global village” for granted. However, we must not forget that at the heart of globalization are concepts that we still desperately need and that do not necessarily follow the possible downward parable of globalization, but instead can be reinforced by their own crisis: regional and interregional integration.

One of the institutional creations that has had the greatest impact in the years between the end of World War II and today is the process of European integration, the most tangible result of which in the economic sphere is the Single Market. The Single Market designed by Delors and advanced by Thatcher, as a result of the Single European Act promoted by Colombo and Genscher, is today the basis of European economic prosperity, but it is not yet a fully completed project. Critical sectors, such as the Banking Union, the single capital market, and energy, are yet to be finalized. This latter sector requires not only regulatory efforts, but also infrastructural commitments to ensure connectivity through the creation of the necessary interconnectors.

In particular, electrical interconnectors play a vital role in ensuring a stable and reliable supply of electricity. More effort equals more results, as the integration of European markets enables to reduce consumer prices and increase energy security, as well as guarantee a more sustainable energy transition. Moreover, energy integration need not necessarily be limited to the borders of the European Union. These transmission infrastructures allow the interconnection of different electrical grids, enabling the exchange of energy between regions, countries, and continents. The technological development of HVDC (high-voltage direct current) lines now allows electrons to be transported without dissipation, even through long submarine routes.

The importance of interregional transmission lines lies in the diversification of energy supply sources they allow. Through these linkages, energy resources available in different geographic regions can be utilized, reducing dependence on a single energy source. This ensures greater reliability of power supply and reduces the risk of power outages. In addition, electrical interconnectors contribute to the development of renewable energy sources. Regions that produce surplus energy from renewable sources, such as solar or wind power, can transfer surplus energy to regions that need it. This encourages the use of clean energy and supports the transition to a low-carbon society.

Integration of energy markets and use of interconnectors

Electrical interconnectors also contribute to the integration of energy markets by enabling cross-border electricity trade and allowing countries to benefit from lower prices and the diversity of sources available on the international market. This clearly results in lower costs for consumers, as well as greater energy efficiency and security: in the event of blackouts or emergencies, it becomes possible to import energy from other grids, avoiding consumers being left without power and critical operations being interrupted.

In fact, the use of interconnectors contributes to a more sustainable energy system. As climate change continues, the risk that extreme weather events can damage energy infrastructure has increased: interconnectors allow energy to be redistributed from other functioning networks, reducing the impact of such events and facilitating faster restoration of supply. At the national level, the development of interconnection networks could make Italy, with its strategic position as a bridge between Europe and Africa, a new hub of energy transition. This is a goal that Italy intends to achieve through a new approach of cooperation and, above all, through benefit sharing with the countries of the southern Mediterranean coast and, more generally, Africa.

The Mattei Plan and electrical interconnector projects between Italy and African countries

This new approach is reinforced by the adoption of the so-called Mattei Plan, which, not surprisingly, includes electricity interconnection projects between Italy and Africa, such as ELMED, which connects Tunisia to Sicily, or, more ambitiously, the MEDLINK project, which envisages a submarine cable connection between Algeria, Tunisia, and La Spezia (Liguria) to transport green energy produced in wind and photovoltaic fields located in southern Algeria and Tunisia. Two different sources are integrated, which guarantees generating power 16 to 18 hours per day and therefore at lower costs.

On the southern shores of the Mediterranean, Algeria and Tunisia will get a share of green energy produced at competitive prices, easing their path to decarbonization. And even before that, they will benefit from the creation of jobs and wealth during the construction of the infrastructures and, subsequently, their maintenance.

As for Italy, it will receive renewable energy financed entirely by market demand, without shifting costs to consumers’ bills. Once northern Italy’s power grid is operational, part of it could be transferred to Austria and Germany, given that the latter in particular will have to make up a 350 GW deficit in the coming years to meet decarbonization targets in the absence of nuclear power in its energy mix. Thus, Italy’s role as an energy center will take shape.

Diversity of cross-border network projects

Of course, there are other interconnection projects across the Black and Caspian Seas designed to connect Central Asia and the Caucasus with Europe. Agreements have been signed between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to launch a feasibility study on the interconnection between the three countries, which will be created by laying a submarine cable, as well as an overland extension through Georgia, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia to Italy, at the center of the intersection of the South-North and East-West axes. This connection, which could be complemented by a further link between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, would also allow to monetize renewable energy, for example, by allowing Azerbaijan to release natural gas for free in order to increase its exports through the TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline).

The reason why the contribution of electrical interconnectors to regional and interregional integration is destined to play an increasingly important role is the “win-win” outcome this entails. There are benefits for everyone: for countries where electricity is generated from renewable sources, for traversed countries, for destination countries. The regional dimension protects against a possible globalization crisis, while cases of protectionism are rare and related to an insufficiently balanced mix of energy sources. Such is the case with the difficulties encountered in recent decades in establishing the necessary electrical connection between France and Spain. The reason for these difficulties is Paris’s desire to protect the role of nuclear power, to which France devotes disproportionate attention. Distortions that could be gradually eliminated as the interconnects become fully functional.

Diplomat, former Italian Ambassador to Madrid, London, and Moscow

Pasquale Quito Terracciano