In France, electricity networks are preparing for a second revolution

On November 4, 2006, it was 8:10 p.m. when German electricity operators RWE and E.ON cut the two high-voltage lines crossing the Ems River in north-west Germany. A usual maneuver, intended to allow a cruise ship to pass safely, the Norwegian-Pearlleaving his construction site and on the way to the North Sea. But, this time, a communication and calculation error between the two operators caused the other lines to be overloaded and then the complete disconnection of part of the European network. From Germany to France, Spain and even Morocco, 15 million homes and customers find themselves plunged into darkness for almost an hour. Very quickly rebalancing actions were launched, a total blackout was avoided, but Europe came close to disaster…

If they are generally forgotten on a daily basis, the electrical networks know how to remember us when we are deprived of them. The specter of power cuts during the winter of 2022, in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the cessation of gas deliveries by Russia, is the most recent illustration.

Vital in many respects, these infrastructures will be even more so in the context of the energy transition. They will have to accommodate more electricity, more renewable energies, while being more resilient to climate change. After the first electrical revolution – that initiated by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla at the end of the 19th centurye century –, electricity is set to experience a second century, replacing fossil fuels in the fight against climate change.

“It took us a century and a half between the arrival of the Edison lamp and today to increase electricity from 0% to around 25% in our energy uses, recalls Nouredine Hadjsaid, director of the G2Elab laboratory in Grenoble. It will only take us twenty-five years to go from 25% to 60%, in order to achieve the carbon neutrality objectives. »

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Originally designed to transport electricity from places of production far from those of consumption, “networks constitute the most complex infrastructure ever built by man”, continues Nouredine Hadjsaid. Behind their steel pylons, and their countless lines and transformers, these infrastructures hide an intangible activity in constant evolution. “Every time we press a switch, it’s a bit like a miracle that happens”describes Marc Barthelemy, author of World of networks (Odile Jacob, 2023).

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