Inside an ordinary building in central Brussels, a team of 20 engineers monitor a huge network of electricity grids 24 hours a day, making sure millions of European homes never go dark.
With their eyes focused on 20 computers and a big screen showing a map of Western Europe, the international team at Coreso, an independent company, can spot any problems that might arise from northern Germany to southern Italy.
“Our biggest fear is a blackout,” Coreso chief executive Francois Boulet said.
“Electricity grids are completely interconnected in Europe today, even if they are still managed at the national level,” he said. “An incident can have repercussions across hundreds of kilometers into a neighboring country.”
Energy security is a growing concern in the 27-state EU, where electricity grids often cross national boundaries, making citizens in one country dependent on the effectiveness of a network in another nation.
With renewable energies such as wind and solar power growing, the network — developed in the 20th century before the growth of wind farms and solar panels — is also becoming increasingly complex and harder to predict.
Founded in 2008, Coreso (Coordination of Electricity System Operators) watches for any grid disruptions, power station incidents or cold or heat-driven spikes in consumption in a territory covering 215 million people, 43 percent of the EU’s population.
The company was founded by French electricity transmission operator RTE and its Belgian counterpart Elia. They were later joined by Britain’s National Grid, Italy’s Terna and Germany’s 50Hertz.
An incident six years ago underscored the need to improve coordination between European nations.
On Nov. 4, 2006, a Saturday, a 400,000-volt power line spanning a German river was put offline to allow a ship to cross.
However, the routine operation took place hours earlier than planned, causing a sudden drop in production and setting off a string of power cuts. The homes of 15 million Europeans went dark.
“This grave breakdown, the first at the European level, demonstrated the importance to have a global vision, which was lacking at the time,” Boulet said.
One of Coreso’s missions is to produce daily forecasts on the flow of electricity, taking into account maintenance work on power lines and the weather.
Striking a balance between production and consumption is crucial because electricity cannot be stored and the power flow must be adjusted in real-time depending on demand, Boulet said.
For instance, when temperatures fall in France, where most heating is electric, consumption goes up, which can make the country an importer of electricity when it is usually a net exporter.
The network must also take into account shifting winds in Germany, which has made eco-friendly renewable energy a priority over fossil fuels or hydro-electricity.
And with several countries phasing out nuclear energy, the task is becoming more complicated.
“The situation has become riskier, but we can still manage it,” Boulet said.