The energy value chain is being rebalanced, from production through to consumption. The pressure of simultaneously keeping prices low – while meeting the need for new capacity – and making the low-carbon transition is driving an energy revolution, write Andrew Jones of S&C Electric Company Europe and Nick Heyward of UK Power Networks.
The UK’s switch to low-carbon energy has driven a multi-billion-pound investment in new renewable energy generation assets over the last decade. In contrast to our current electricity supply, which mostly originates from centralised locations, a large proportion of new generation, such as offshore wind, will be located in remote regions.
This year, when the electricity market reform (EMR) comes into force, the guaranteed prices (contracts for difference) offered to new nuclear and offshore wind energy will drive an influx of even more green energy on to the grid. To allow for the switch to distributed energy and for the benefits of those and future investments to flow through to energy users, it’s vital that a resilient power grid is in place.
Energy supply from these green energy sources fluctuates and, unlike current power stations, much of its supply will come from remote onshore and offshore areas. In order to run an ‘always-on’ economy using renewables, we must embrace advanced grid technologies which balance intermittent green energy with existing fossil fuel sources. If we want a power grid that supports the UK’s low-carbon transition then we need to make demand meet supply, not just making supply meet demand, as it does today.
To make green energy work for us, we need, at times, to deliberately increase demand (to absorb the large surges of energy that renewables produce) and then to reduce that demand when supply drops. To achieve this, we need everything from consumer engagement through to innovative technical and commercial solutions, such as energy storage.
The role of storage in the energy mix
The energy sector is the only supply chain business model that doesn’t ‘warehouse’ its product. Yet energy storage is crucial for making green energy technologies viable.
Storage effectively enables grid operators to move electricity capacity from one time of day to another: smoothing the peaks and troughs created by low-carbon technologies, and thereby avoiding the need to upgrade, or replace infrastructure while reducing our reliance on carbon-emitting generation resources.
As well as balancing the power grid, large energy users could use storage to buy power off-peak, then store and use it as needed, which would cut bills dramatically; helping to reshore businesses in the UK.
From a macro-economic point of view, Imperial College estimates that 25 gigawatts (GW) of storage capacity located on the electricity network would create savings on UK energy spend of up to £10 billion a year by 2050. Aside from these savings (and other whole system benefits, such as capital deferral on expensive copper grid reinforcement and enhanced resilience), the reality is that the grid will not have the capacity to plug in the volume of low-carbon technologies promised by the EMR without adequate energy storage.
Why then, given the chancellor’s aim to “make the UK a world leader in energy storage”, does the UK currently rely on just 3GW of energy storage capacity, over half of which comes from a single hydro-electric storage site built in the 1970s?
Learning by doing
The answer is that grid-scale energy storage is still a relatively immature and expensive technology, apart from pumped hydro storage (which has limited options for new capacity). However, that picture is changing fast.
Also, the full benefits of installing energy storage on the network are not fully understood. Currently, there are limited large-scale energy storage projects in the UK, leaving a confidence gap.
To address this, UK Power Networks in partnership with S&C Electric Europe and other project partners recently announced a cutting-edge trial of energy storage technology to establish the impact on the grid of absorbing energy, then releasing it at peak times to meet demand. The trial will establish the ability of energy storage to help support capacity constraints and to balance the influx of low-carbon technologies onto the grid. This will be Europe’s largest battery energy storage system.
The £18.7m project – of which £13.2m comes from Ofgem’s Low Carbon Networks Fund – will be based at the electricity substation serving Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire and will deploy a battery storage facility, using advanced lithium manganese technology from Samsung SDI.
When the facility becomes operational later this year, the UK Power Networks’ substation will have a 6-megawatt (MW) storage capacity, which is expected to defer more than £6m on traditional network reinforcement methods, such as cabling and additional transformers.
For the first time, this project will demonstrate storage across multiple parts of the electricity system, outside the boundaries of the distribution network, allowing National Grid and energy suppliers to explore the shared benefits of storage.
By demonstrating 6MW/10 megawatt hours (MWh) of storage, the project will explore the value of using storage to manage dynamic consumption patterns and supply to make the network more resilient and responsive to fluctuations, while cutting infrastructure and cabling costs. Once proven, the replication of the method across all of the UK network operators could conservatively provide savings of more than £700m by 2040 compared to business-as-usual approaches.
Perhaps most excitingly, the trial is expected to show how a smart distributed energy system, supported by storage, could enable distributors to take on a multi-dimensional role; receiving and absorbing ‘wrong time’ green energy then redistributing it when needed, providing benefits up and down the energy value chain.
This type of thinking is an evolution beyond the classic utility mindset of energy being generated and controlled from large central locations. Certainly, a common-sense approach must be taken to ensure that this type of technology is used to effectively serve consumers’ interests – providing the best value for use of low carbon technologies.
As we make the low-carbon transition, it’s vital that we safeguard reliability, resilience and certainty of supply. As utilities face-up to the challenge of bringing even more new technologies, such as solar and wind, on stream, the networks need to be ahead of the game in testing and adopting smart technologies, like storage, to make the grid flexible enough to cope with future change.
The time is ripe for the power system model of the last century to evolve, driven by new generation, consumption habits, technology and regulation. As with any step change, it’s vital that, before making the leap, we have tried and tested the new world that we are moving into, only then can we embrace it with both hands.
Andrew Jones is managing director of S&C Electric Company Europe, and Nick Heyward is project director for the Smarter Network Storage project at UK Power Networks. For more information about the project, please visit www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/innovation.
Photo: Andrea Kratzenberg via freeimages
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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