In the run-up to PennWell’s annual POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe* in Milan this June, conference director Nigel Blackaby examines the key themes that will drive the debate – with change at the heart of the agenda like never before.
The COP21 talks in Paris were an important milestone in the battle to control climate change. In a show of overwhelming consensus, global leaders agreed to keep temperature rises well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.
But while the Paris Agreement is without doubt an impressive demonstration of collective will, it’s important that we understand that the real work starts now. We need to truly unpack what the Agreement will mean in practice; how it will affect the power industry in Europe and what policymakers and practitioners need to do to respond.
In short, we need to ask ourselves: what now?
While the last few years have seen much soul searching over the implications of the energy transition, 2016 is the year when we should start seeing the transformations the industry has been contemplating come to fruition.
This could be the year when energy storage achieves its breakthrough.
If the industry can get the storage issue right, both in the scale and cost, then renewable sources will be transformed and our ‘green’ aspirations will start to become a reality. The ability to store large amounts of electricity generated from renewable sources will solve the problems the industry has tackled for so long – the erratic nature of wind and solar energy. Therefore relieving traditional baseload generation power plants of this role – which is not what they were designed to do.
At the other end of the supply chain, a breakthrough in storage could very quickly see swathes of savvy households becoming totally energy neutral.
There are already signs of real technological advancements. Improved, higher capacity batteries are coming to market, at a more affordable level.
Take the Tesla PowerWall, for example. A home battery that charges using electricity generated from solar panels – or the grid when utility rates are low – and stores energy to power homes in the evening. It quite literally devolves power to the consumer.
This issue is so significant to the power sector that an entire day of this year’s POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe conferences will be dedicated to energy storage and its impact on the power industry. A viable and cost-effective energy storage mechanism could help manage the peaks and troughs of demand, ending the frequent need to quickly ramp up supply, and changing the game for renewables integration and the energy industry as a whole.
The need to balance supply and manage intermittency has driven increased interest in the development of smart grids. Traditional energy grids were not designed to deal with two-way power delivery and extensive decentralised generation. Newer, smarter grids need to deal with devolved power generation, at a consumer level, as well as spiky generation from sources like renewables, while closely managing a far more complex infrastructure matrix.
By incorporating more intelligence into the power grid and distribution networks, operators and utilities can react more quickly to changes in demand. If the grid has in-built intelligence and communications capability, then it can react more quickly to peaks and troughs, and send messages to the parts of the system necessary to reduce or ramp up both power supply and demand as required. Replacing today’s infrastructure with a complete smart grid is a vast undertaking but it holds the key to unlocking the energy cloud of tomorrow.
Change is the only constant
Of course change and modernisation have their challenges. For one, they come with a hefty price tag, and so the industry must always consider how to finance the investment needed to meet these demands. Developers and financiers will meet at POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe to negotiate such deals. But that’s not the only issue the industry faces. Indeed, making decisions about big investments in power generation is difficult, especially when faced with increasing policy uncertainty – both at a national and international level.
This is an issue that players across Europe must contend with. Germany is often praised for leading the way when it comes to energy policy, yet its volte face on nuclear perfectly illustrates the fact that when it comes to power, the ground is ever-shifting. And while its ambitions on emissions are laudable, the decision last summer to mothball large amounts of brown coal and to create a reserve capacity, instead of imposing a planned emissions levy, shows that the industry must be prepared for unexpected policy decisions around every corner.
Yet 2016 is a year to be optimistic. Europe’s power engineering concerns are positioning themselves to meet the new market challenges; and new entrants are injecting fresh ideas and thinking into the sector creating momentum in an industry ready to embrace the opportunities of change. The future will be a more innovative, more efficient and more effective powering of people’s lives and businesses. The real question we’re looking to answer in Milan is, in a post-Paris world, how quickly can we get there?
*Note from the editor:
The POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe conference and exhibition will take place on 21st – 23rd June 2016 at the MiCo Milano in Italy. It remains the destination of choice for stakeholders to gain and exchange key insights and learning as all aspects of Europe’s energy transition come under the spotlight. Utilities, independent power producers, equipment producers, service providers, city energy co-ordinators, consultancy firms, financiers, data handlers and grid operators will share their experiences and knowledge, and discuss the industry’s current and future needs.