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Greening global energy at scale

Published by , Deputy Editor
Energy Global,

Establishing a decisive shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is high on the agenda for progressive utilities looking to implement low carbon strategies. However, the recent energy crisis has laid bare the challenges of energy security and fossil fuel dependence and highlighted that the impetus for greener power is now more important than ever – for the climate and for economic stability.

Statistics around global warming make for stark reading. IPCC scientists agree that average global temperatures have risen by at least 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, we will exceed the 1.5°C limit set out in the Paris Agreement – if we want to hit it, we must half our emissions every decade until 2050. The challenge has never been greater.

While the concept of reaching the ‘tipping point’ and the ‘point of no return’ for our planet should be enough to trigger a global response akin to the way countries rallied to control the COVID pandemic, the pressure to achieve a more sustainable future has come in response to the shockwaves in the global energy markets created by the geopolitical climate.

The events of February 2022 sparked what the International Energy Agency (IEA) referred to as a ‘truly global energy crisis’ triggering dramatic increases in energy prices, supply shortages, rising inflation and economic uncertainty, security issues, and even changes to government policy.

While the scramble in the short term has been to source new resources to replace Russian gas, oil, and coal, there are many that see the bigger picture, and this is accelerating the move to more sustainable fuels and renewable energy projects.

In Europe, where many countries previously supplied Russian gas via the Nord Stream, there have been unprecedented levels of change already. Research suggests that 19 EU member states hit records in 2022 for the percentage of electricity generated by wind and solar power, saving 8 billion m3 of gas. Real progress achieved very quickly. There are, of course, temptations to look for solutions that are quicker or to find a less complex fix for the energy industry. Reactivating coal power plants for example or investing in nuclear power plants. After all, we know what we are getting with traditional generation systems – supply and demand are easily balanced for example and it is more challenging to do the same with renewables, particularly those which are weather dependent.

The move to renewables will not be simple, that is certain, but it is the only way forward to meet net zero targets. Whether you consider its benefits in the short term (cutting fuel bills for consumers and reducing reliance on a volatile energy market) or the long term (cutting carbon emissions and stabilising the global climate), it is the right solution for utilities, and we must put plans into action now.

Key technologies in the mission to greener utilities

The rapid transformation of the electrical distribution infrastructure requires us to think about the network in a different way. We are no longer working with a centralised power plant generating electricity 24/7. To enable the transition to decentralised power generation, we need new systems and technologies – but the good news is that these are already here.

Two of the key enabling technologies are energy storage and digitalisation.

Balancing the grid is more challenging without synchronous generation and inertia to smooth the peaks and troughs in demand, but it can be achieved using renewable energy in conjunction with battery energy storage systems (BESS). Batteries capture and store excess energy generated by solar or wind, and these energy reserves can be called upon to meet grid demand when the wind is not blowing, or the sun is not shining.

Digitalisation is also key to managing a decentralised generation network. It can control and monitor the BESS – deciding what to store and what can be sent back to the grid and when – it can help with asset management and the forecasting of renewable energy generation, and it can even offer remote monitoring. This last point is useful if your wind turbines or solar farms are installed in very remote locations, helping to operate and maintain the network more safely and reducing the cost of ownership of those assets.

For example, the virtualisation of protection and control in distribution networks offers new possibilities to optimise the supply of renewable generation and achieve flexibility and scale. ABB’s SSC600 SW – the world’s very first virtualised protection and control solution for substations – enables operators to enhance automation by simply installing standalone software on the hardware of their choice.

Also under the digitalisation umbrella are advanced artificial intelligence programs, such as ABB’s Optimax product, which can predict energy generation based on weather forecasting, ensuring a renewable-based network runs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Balancing supply and demand could be almost as seamless as it is with synchronous generators.

Accelerating the transition to renewables at scale – and at pace

With pressure from governments, industry and consumers to improve energy security and bring down the cost of energy, time is of the essence for utilities. Plans to transition to a net zero network will have been on the table for most organisations in the industry for many years, but it is the rollout of those ideas and plans which now need to step up a gear.

The transition to a renewable energy-driven network will require the installation of a lot of new equipment. To ensure this equipment slots into the network and power supplies are maintained, it is prudent to create a digital twin to simulate how the grid will behave. Such a model can be used to maximise assets and the flow and availability of energy, and it can help with the integration of renewable assets with existing equipment to prolong the working life of all of the assets.

While it is not in the hands of utilities, the speed of transformation can be further propelled forward by local government policy. There have been regulatory restrictions in the past that have hampered development, so regulations must change to support and invest in the building of new renewable energy infrastructure and at the scale and speed required.

In summary

There has been a growing appetite in the utility industry for green transformation for some time, but the urgency has grown significantly as fossil fuels now present a more complex issue for providers and they are less of a safety net. The resolve to achieve those sustainability plans is now greater than ever in Europe and the world. We are all at the tipping point, and there can be no way back. Now is the time to take action if we are to achieve a low carbon future.

Written by Antonio Martinez Reina, Global Utility and Renewable Leader for ABB.



For more news and technical articles from the global renewable industry, read the latest issue of Energy Global magazine.

Energy Global's Spring 2023 issue

The Spring 2023 issue of Energy Global hosts an array of technical articles focusing on offshore wind, solar technology, energy storage, green hydrogen, waste-to-energy, and more. This issue also features a regional report on commodity challenges facing Asia’s energy transition.

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