‘The Mediterranean Ring’ would make a fitting title for a high-voltage action thriller where cut-throat crime gangs vie for control in the labyrinthine medieval medina’s of North Africa. Alas it is no such thing. And yet this project to connect the power grids of North Africa and Europe does boast a potentially destructive internal power struggle that could stymie its promise — clean power supplies for Europe, economic development for North Africa, and a much needed bond between neighbors.
MedRing’s power struggle spilled into the daylight on November 21, 2005 when power engineers activated a key electrical circuit linking Tunisia and Libya in a key test of the MedRing. For a moment nearly all of the AC power systems of North Africa operated synchronously with those of Europe. Power plants, transmission lines and controls from Syria to Morocco were in electrical conversation with those of the mighty UCTE, whose 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines connect 26 European countries. Add links to Turkey and the MedRing would have been complete.
Seven minutes later the grids had broken apart and the test had failed.
It was a tug of war between North African grid control systems that broke the synchronicity. Understanding why isn’t straightforward. Bear with me as I try because the failure of this early trial exemplifies the challenge inherent in connecting a robust power system like the UCTE’s — the world’s biggest — to much weaker grids such as those of North Africa.
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