In a previous article on digitalization for climate we have commented on how we all generate, use and manage energy may have a great impact on climate change, e.g. through changing energy sources by migrating from coal, oil and gas to “green energy” from solar, wind or water, on increasing energy efficiency - and on cutting down on energy usage. This article is the first of three, elaborating further on various types of energy (solar in particular) - and on the challenges in transition to a distributed decentralized and smart network structure with micro-grids and multiples of distributed energy resources. This first one looks into the overall challenges. The goal of the three articles is to enhance the awareness of the energy situation today, how energy may influence emissions and improve daily lives and business - and the fact that we all have a role to play in order to take responsibility for speeding up the required energy transition in the world.
Access to energy is a fundamental need for the successful functioning of our societies. Provisioning of energy has, however, since decades brought challenges to our environment - and even having acknowledged this fact, means to cope with this and to reverse the most devastating impacts of energy production and consumption have been a slow process. Still, we are all committed to the sustainability goals set by the UN.
The growing deployment of renewables are changing the nature of the electricity grid by introducing micro-grids and prosumers in large numbers. This will enable an improved and more reliable electricity network and potentially also a global coverage serving the entire population over time.
The threat of Climate Change
Climate change brings challenges to our environment and how we live on this planet. We observe more and more extreme weather bringing damage to buildings and infrastructure which our society depends on. Causes and consequences we need to deal with without delay include wild-fire, fierce wind, heavy rainfall, extreme temperatures, high sea-waves and raising sea-level – all creating huge damage to our societies. While we work out how to deal with the causes of climate change and put our efforts to reverse and slow down this dangerous development, there are also obvious measures we need to take to handle the effects of the climate change, protecting infrastructure and improve the robustness against these environmental incidents.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable global societies are also for the wide spread of virus – again leading to social unrest. Similarly, climate change consequences are leading to more severe storms, rainfall and landslides, all of this affecting our daily lives and health – also potentially leading to political conflicts and terror. The build and maintenance of infrastructure are vital to cope with any disaster, being local, regional or global, affecting roads, water pipes, utility grids and telecom networks which all are essential in this regard.
We need to develop more resilient and sustainable solutions for the basic needs of our societies, to cope with unpredicted events caused by humans and nature. This century’s solutions should provide minimal footprint and products that deliver positive environmental and economic impact. Housing, technologies, transport and production in our societies are dependent upon availability of energy. In this regard, all parties involved should contribute to the needed energy transition through optimization of energy consumption by reducing their own consumed energy. For example, individuals can invest in technology for production of renewable energy at home - or even more important, they can influence the planning of carbon-free energy transition in the companies they work.
People’s need for energy today is enormous, and by the further electrification of societies and future population growth, we should also take into consideration people and land areas not yet having access to energy. By replacing the use of coal-plants, diesel generators and fossil fuel-based energy in general with renewable energy sources, digitalization, internet and artificial intelligence, it is possible to enhance living conditions especially in emerging markets. Replacing polluting and poorly functioning grid solutions with affordable and reliable clean energy supply will bring domino effects in developing countries, and may contribute to improved health, create jobs and the fight against poverty which has yet to be solved.
Improving energy supply and reliability
The goal of our energy system of the future should be to obtain a smoother and more predictable flow of energy, with less variation between peaks and troughs, thus making it possible to scale down the need for future growth of infrastructure. Reducing and postponing the need for expanding main transmission cables, optimize transformer configurations, introduce effective operational management – in general, large costs can be saved in utilities infrastructure development transforming to a more robust network structure. Consequently, this will benefit societies and environment, and should be reflected both in grid rent and on the electricity bill.
Holding years of experience within telecom, and having planned telco core infrastructure and nodes in Norway and Asian/European markets, I’m well aware of the need of network redundancy build-in and back-up solutions to cope with unpredicted peak traffic caused by unexpected events and behaviors. Recognizing the old expression saying “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” applies equally for any catastrophic event, but also to provide sustainable cost optimal and reliable 24/7 services to the public.
Telecoms networks have developed over time with introduction of new technologies, digitalization and new principles for logical and physical networks, now coping with reliable, resilient and safe transport of audio, data and video-based information. Liberalization within telecoms has provided multiple network and infrastructure operators serving customers by means of fiber, wireless and satellite communication.
The energy sector has recently also developed with introduction of new types of energy being deployed, and infrastructure build is now changing from the centralized structure as of last century. Much of the energy production for electricity has historically been provided by operation of huge coal, gas, oil fossil-fuel plants. With the awareness of consequences caused by carbon emissions to the atmosphere and hence the climate and the environment, the world has realized the need of carbon neutral renewables to take the place of fossil-fuel based plants.
This search for and deployment of renewable energy is leading to a transition into various new sources of energy like solar, wind, wave, tidal, biogas, hydro as the most common – and now goes hand in hand with a transition also of the grid infrastructure by introduction of more decentralized and distributed power generation sites/plants and consequently changes in network structures. Awareness of the availability of renewable sources in energy production should also lead to a speed-up of global energy coverage, recognizing that some 1.2 billion individuals do still not have access to electricity as of today.
The need for careful planning of capacity and structure applies for any infrastructure, observing real-time loads to take preventive actions to maintain highest service levels, verify user pattern and predict future growth should not be underestimated. The optimal balancing of capacity versus load is crucial for sound business economy and hence service pricing. In Bangladesh it has recently been recognized that only some 40% of available production capacity is being consumed in the grid network, hence production at power stations is running at 60% idle mode. Interconnect to neighboring networks and available interim storage capacity may to some degree compensate for surplus energy, be it due to failed forecasts or intermittent overproduction from renewable sources like wind and solar. However, in a decentralized prosumer distributed network, optimal capacity will naturally become more challenging to engineer.
Reliability of Supply
How locally produced electricity stored in batteries can help strengthening the electrical grid by providing reliable, cost-effective energy during peak demand and in times of emergency, such as severe storms or widespread outages should be reinforced. Batteries may be stationary ones or even those used in Electric Vehicles (EVs). More on EVs will come in a later article (refer also our earlier article on electric cars and some of its related challenges). One of the great things about renewables is that they can be widely distributed and decentralized, and as for solar with minimum maintenance during lifetime – installed at consumers own site, allowing them to forget even holding it.
During the recent blackouts in Texas, fossil fuel supporters desperately pointed fingers at wind and solar power, though neither of them were primary causes of the failures, as these actually were the fossil gas plants. In fact, wind and solar are intrinsically more reliable than fossil power, as a 250 MW gas plant might lose 50% capacity if only one turbine fails. The advantage of intrinsic reliability of Wind and Solar comes from their modularity, as the loss of 1 turbine on this sized plant would only affect 1% of the potential output. A solar farm has a similar modularity to a wind farm, so loss of an individual solar panel would be virtually unnoticeable. Even if one of the inverters goes down, a similar sized PV farm would lose only 4% of its generating capacity. Consequently, energy from Solar and Wind farms by nature and configuration will be exceptionally reliable and less vulnerable than fossil fuel and even hydro plants, due to their modularity.
The more types and volume of renewables are on a grid, in general, the more reliable and resilient the grid becomes. However, reliability is not only about type and mix of energy, it is also about infrastructure, cabling, network structure, Trafo-Stations, load capacity, power balancing, network interconnection and maintenance, i.e. the whole grid and its operation, as California and Texas have proven lately in the US. Renovation of utility infrastructure and replacing obsolete old turbines by upgrading to new and more efficient technology in aged hydro power plants will increase their resilience and provide add-on of clean carbon free energy supply.
Typically, California produces huge amounts of wind and solar energy. Texas has created an efficient, go-it-alone electricity built on gas, coal, nuclear and wind. But neither could keep the lights on facing the brutal summer and winter weather that scientists call a taste of a changing climate. Harsh weather has also proven the need for high quality of constructions and infrastructure products that can withstand extreme strong winds, high and low temperatures and forces of hail wind, snow, rain and moisture. In addition, some regions and countries may even face the threat of human terror and war to their infrastructure.
By building islands of energy, from local mini-grids to community or state-based infrastructure, Texas has recently demonstrated how important lack of interconnect between networks may be in order to cope with high demand due to catastrophic events within a geographic area. However, establishment of inter- national/continental networks may raise political debate about how energy pricing will be affected.
Energy sources available
Requirements and strategies of introducing power production based on wind, wave, tidal, bio and hydro will not be in depth discussed at this stage, as the main focus going forward will rather be on solar, one of the energy sources we all may directly or indirectly influence. Individuals holding areas of land and/or livestock/agriculture may though find use of bio-based energy e.g. in hybrid with solar or wind, even though turbines for residentials or business are not commonly found. Large wind power turbines on land have faced severe resistance and protests from environmentalist, and offshore alternatives are accused of effecting both seabirds and marine biology. However, the oil and gas industry is eager to offer their competence and installed base of idle off-shore platforms as basis for ocean-wind projects, being seabed grounded or floating as recently introduced in the North Sea and other projects in international oceans.
The shutdown of the world’s coal plant industries will be a huge demolition exercise, it will take time and will reduce power production capacity. However, a highly successful concept has been introduced by NextFuel, a company claiming to be a clean, inexpensive and profitable coal substitute. Their product, briquettes made of fast-grown elephant grass on marginal land, is ready to be used directly into existing coal power production plants, and biological carbon capture is being a part of the process. The coal plant can directly replace its coal production with this clean fuel, without an expensive rebuilding of the plant. Researchers have concluded that elephant grass fuels can even be carbon negative. The concept is consequently said to combat global warming - and is a new energy intruder on the market.
Recently even introduction of small-module-reactor (SMR) power plants, which some argue as more cost effective than wind/solar plants, has been brought up as candidate for increased power supply. Nuclear plants don’t emit carbon dioxide, but from experience we know that damage from an accident would create enormous consequences at a scale that would exceed whatever benefits derived from the plant. Nuclear power may be a low-carbon source of energy, but it’s not renewable because of the nuclear waste it produces. The question is, will any government take the chance on introducing SMR.
Multiple technologies and solutions for energy production will regardless be required to meet the requirements of green energy on land and sea to cater for the future energy demanding industry. So, in recognition that true renewable and emission free energy will have to be provided in large scale, this opens up for Solar energy as one of the pillars that energy transition to renewables will need to rely on, and this will involve private and commercial land/building owners.
Solar energy will be discussed further in our next article.