Dawn of a new energy infrastructure

By on 29/09/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Countries are installing ever more renewable generation capacity – but most have only just begun adapting their grids and national infrastructures for a future of more dispersed power generation and storage

To reach net zero, countries will have to radically reshape their energy production and distribution infrastructures – reforming policies and regulations in every field from transport to housing. Catherine Early explores how power grids can be rebuilt for a world of renewable generation, and considers the implications for departments across government

To reach net zero, countries will have to electrify vast swathes of their economies – freeing everyday activities such as road transport and domestic heating from dependence on fossil fuels. And a growing number of countries are making that commitment: about 50 governments have now pledged to hit net zero. But realising this ambition will require major investments and reforms reaching well beyond the power generation sector.

Nations will, for example, have to radically reshape their power distribution networks. Renewable power is often produced at a much smaller scale than traditional, fossil fuel-powered electricity generation – demanding more dispersed power grids, collecting energy from a much larger number of locations. And because the amount of power generated by many forms of renewables changes with the weather, time of day and season, energy planners need ways to plug reductions in supply.

In time, an emerging renewable electricity-based economy will increase the options here. Electric vehicles (EVs) parked on drives across the country could, for example, fully charge their batteries during periods of high generation – releasing power back to the grid when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing. Fitted with rooftop solar panels and batteries, homes and commercial buildings could generate and store power against times of low supply. But meanwhile, governments will need to find other ways to ensure that power is available when required.

As countries increase the proportion of power generated by renewables, this challenge is set to grow. In 2015, about 30 countries produced more than 5% of their electricity using renewables; but by 2018, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), nearly 50 countries were doing so. By 2040, the IEA predicts, on average countries will be producing about 45% of their power via renewables. So how should governments plan for a future of widespread renewables generation and reshaped national grids? And how will departments have to change their approach as energy supply considerations affect policymaking in fields such as transport, housing and business development?

And when the wind doesn’t blow…

To date, governments have typically relied on gas- and coal-fired generators to provide this ‘flexibility’, compensating for reductions in renewables supply; but this brings a high cost in carbon emissions, and will become less cost-effective as the volume of renewables continues to grow. The alternatives include battery systems, grid connections between different regions and countries, and demand response – where companies and households are incentivised to turn energy down or off at times of peak demand. Though the IEA predicts that even in 2040, back-up sources from conventional power plants – particularly gas – will still have a large role to play in emerging economies such as China and India, these other sources of flexibility will all become mainstream by that date.

Pole position: widespread adoption of electric vehicles will eventually create a nationwide network of high-capacity batteries that can be used to store power for times of reduced supply. Photo by Marco Verch via Flickr

Globally, implementation of these newer types of flexibility is at an early stage, since many countries have not yet reached a level of renewable energy penetration where they are needed. “We’re going through a massive energy transformation: some of it is still at a nascent stage while in other places it’s more advanced, because individual countries have different economic structures,” says Dana Younger, special adviser to the Global Wind Energy Council. The importance of building in this flexibility is shown by the position of the UK – a global leader in adopting renewables, which has nonetheless been hit hard by fast-rising wholesale gas prices.

US government research agency the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has just launched a three-year research programme which will aim to identify the best way for its national and regional transmission operators to maintain reliable and affordable power as energy sources become more distributed. NREL is also developing methods that will allow the island of Maui to operate with 100% wind and solar photo-voltaics by 2024, without using any conventional generation as back-up, through the use of specially-developed software and better use of controls on the batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. 

In Australia, government agency the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has innovated on a number of projects, including a prototype “virtual power plant” linking solar battery storage systems across 1,000 residential and business premises in Adelaide, which effectively operate as a 5MW power plant; and a AUS$3.3m (US$2.4m) project to repurpose used EV batteries as a commercial-scale battery product.

Power pioneer

The UK is one of the most developed countries in terms of its energy transformation: in 2020, 43% of energy came from renewable sources, with no power being produced by coal for weeks on end between April and June 2020. The country’s grid operator, National Grid ESO, has implemented new markets and pilot projects on flexibility, involving battery storage, pumped hydro systems and new technologies developed by energy and engineering companies.

Innovation has been driven by small start-up companies such as Limejump, which aggregates energy from smaller generators and sells it to the grid; and Octopus Energy, which has introduced a variable tariff that incentivises customers to use electricity at times of low demand.

As photovoltaics and other renewables are installed on more domestic and commercial buildings, the shape and function of national grids are changing. Photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer via Pixabay

The government has driven the changes through its Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) over the past decade, with supportive policies including subsidies to incentivise installation of renewable energy plants and carbon taxation to make coal plants economically unviable. Last month, it launched an updated strategy for the use of smart technologies to provide flexibility, including a call for evidence on how to implement ‘V2G’ – the use of EVs’ batteries as a nationwide power storage system.

Global collaboration

National Grid ESO has a target to run a net zero grid by 2025, and says it’s confident of meeting it. However, even the UK has made little progress on creating an integrated energy strategy involving other key departments, according to Matt Magill, National Grid ESO’s zero carbon operation senior manager.

The grid operator has been focusing on higher-level issues around energy transmission, he explains, but is hoping to start working more closely with the UK departments governing transport and housing. BEIS has recruited a deputy director in a new role with a remit to coordinate all government department work on net zero targets, Magill adds. “The next stage of decarbonisation is going to be a lot more about consumer behaviour, housing, planning, and transport. It gets a lot more micro very quickly in the future,” he says.

National Grid ESO is sharing its expertise and experience of implementing decarbonised energy systems and flexibility across networks of grid operators globally, including through GO15, a voluntary initiative of the world’s 18 largest power grid operators; and Global PST, which involves the chief executives of grid operators in Australia, Ireland, Denmark, California and Texas.

The G-PST operators are leading research on finding solutions to common issues: grid operators will then have the data and technologies to propose solutions to their governments, Magill says. But the UK’s advanced position leaves it with a unique set of challenges: while many countries are still prioritising a rise in renewables generation, the UK must work out how to build in the flexibility to cope with renewables’ more intermittent power production.

Beyond the energy department…

The IEA is working with governments on power system flexibility through the Clean Energy Ministerial: a high-level global forum to promote policies and programs that advance clean energy technology. It has run a series of technical and knowledge-sharing events through its Power System Flexibility Campaign, which aims to bridge the gap between policymakers and organisations outside government.

Traditional grids carried power from a few big producers to millions of consumers; the future is one of far more small producers and storage providers, with energy flowing in both directions. Photo by Ashraf Chemban via Pixabay

Commentators agree that policymakers in non-energy departments will need to become involved as grids become more mature in their approach to flexibility. Wind energy specialist Younger says that governments need coherent national strategies addressing the unique needs of their economies; their current and potential energy generation mix; and their options for boosting flexibility. Developing economies may find this challenging, he says. “In many cases, they don’t have the kind of robustness within their national grids to accommodate some of these new more flexible options that are needed to cope with integrating growing quantities of variable renewable energy.”

Marlon Dey, research lead on power distribution at analysts Aurora Energy Research, points to V2G as an example of an issue that will require civil servants whose expertise lies elsewhere – in this case, transport – to quickly build an understanding of energy policies and technologies. Transport officials will, for example, have to create standards and regulations to ensure that people’s EVs are not damaged – nor their batteries left empty – when they’re used as grid storage.

Civil servants overseeing the built environment will, meanwhile, have to amend policies and regulations to encourage the provision of renewables generation and suitable grid connections in homes, commercial premises and industrial buildings, along with the infrastructure required to monitor and control parked EVs’ batteries. “Those kinds of questions need to be thought through, and solutions will probably involve working with manufacturers,” Dey says.

Learning from the leaders

Bart Stoffer, coordinator of Europe power market modelling services at energy consultant DNV, urges governments to encourage public utilities and grid operators to release data on their operations – supporting better analysis of how growing renewables generation is affecting national energy systems. The US government incentivises the release of such data, he notes, and thus “the US understands the locational impact of wind and solar deployment on the system better than in Europe because experts have the right data for their tools, which means they have less of a political discussion and really talk about facts. Renewable energy deployment can be at times political. Therefore, data availability and transparency are critical so that experts can do the maths.”

Magill says that the UK has become a testbed for many ideas around flexibility, and hopes that the grid operators in other countries will “steal the best bits” of the UK’s model. “It’s a big, complicated challenge, because it does require government, stakeholders, industry, and consumers to all be on board and all headed in the same direction,” he says. “We’re lucky that there’s been such a push from government in the UK to get to this point.”

Yet if the UK has become a leader in the renewables field, that has presented the country with two big new challenges: that of building flexibility into its energy infrastructure to keep the lights on; and that of coordinating departments across government to play their part in creating a society and economy powered by green electricity. That race has barely yet begun; but the UK, at least, has secured a good position on the starting grid.

On November 23, GGF will be hosting a free webinar on the outcomes of
the COP26 conference in Glasgow – which may require civil servants to make much
faster progress on the issues covered in this feature. You can
sign up via
our dedicated events page.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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