Posts by: Dave Elliott

European Fudges and global options

By Dave Elliott

Renewables are doing well around the world including in the EU, which now has over 100GW of PV solar in place and around 150GW of wind generation capacity.  However, there are some problems and issues as the economic and political climate changes, leading to a range of new policies, for example in Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark and the UK.

Sweden, which now gets over 50% of its energy from renewables, has decided to close but replace its old nuclear plants with up to 10 new ones, while still keeping to its aim of moving to 100% renewable energy by 2040. Oddly that evidently doesn’t mean that all the nuclear plants would then be closed. The new policy says the 100% by 2040 target ‘is a goal, not a cut-off date that would prohibit nuclear power, and it does not mean either the end a closure of nuclear power’: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Sweden-abolishes-nuclear-tax-1006169.html This seems a strange compromise, and the ‘10 new plants’ is just speculation- they would presumably have to be privately financed, which could be hard unless costs fall: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=6451006

Germany, which now gets over 32% of its electricity from renewables, is still committed to phasing out the rest of its nuclear plants by 2022, but is cutting back on the rate of expansion of renewables to reduce cost-pass through to consumers and allow grid upgrades to catch up, while limiting problems with some of them- there has been local opposition to new grids. New restrictions will cap onshore wind expansion at 2.8GW per year. Solar PV will also have a limit of 600MW p.a.: www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/01/angela-merkel-signs-deal-with-german-states-to-regulate-green-energy-rollout

Although the government is evidently still sticking to its target of an increase in the share of renewable sources to 40-45% of total electricity production by 2025 on the way to 80% by 2050, many see the slow down as a worrying step backwards:  www.windpoweroffshore.com/article/1393115/analysis-industry-questions-german-sustainability

These fudges and cuts are unwelcome, but not unexpected given the political and economic climate, perhaps the worst news being that Germany is also dragging it’s feet on phasing out coal: http://www.reuters.com/article/germany-coal-idUSL8N18Z27Y?rpc=401 Though equally worrying is the backlash from Denmark’s center-right government which wants to cut support for renewables – onshore wind especially: www.thegwpf.com/denmark-cancels-all-coastal-wind-farms-delays-new-built-until-2025/ and  www.thegwpf.com/denmarks-liberal-government-to-roll-back-renewable-energy-policy/  Much as with the Tories in the UK – where nuclear is still backed strongly and renewables face yet more cuts: www.r-e-a.net/news/strong-renewable-energy-growth-threatened-by-recent-policy-changes That seems likely to get worse after Brexit – the UK will no longer be subject to the mandatory 15% by 2020 UK renewable energy target agreed with the EU.

It’s the same old battle almost everywhere. Temporarily lost in Spain, with most renewable support cut back and nuclear retained, but lively still in France, where a recent study by the state energy agency ADEME claimed France could switch to 100% renewables by 2050: http://mixenr.ademe.fr/en. However, although some old nuclear plants may close under the new policy, one of EDF’s top nuclear executives, Dominique Miniere, told reporters in Paris, ‘A certain number of points in that study are not based on technological realities. We do not believe in a 100% renewables mix by the (time) horizon (ADEME) indicates. However, we want to extend the lifespan of our reactors in order to allow a gradual increase of renewables in the mix.’ www.powerengineeringint.com/articles/2016/05/edf-nuclear-chief-says-100-per-cent-renewables-by-2050-unrealistic.html

The new renewable energy technologies are still progressing, now supplying around 24% of global electricity, but, as can be seen, progress in the EU is being opposed at every step, with support for, or retention of, nuclear often being the default position adopted by the old guard. Plus shale gas in some, but coal in Germany.

While Europe struggles with it politics and economics, and now Brexit, the situation elsewhere is somewhat different- China, still booming economically although now a bit less, is leading the pack with wind heading for 250GW and PV solar already at 60GW:  www.e3g.org/library/china-accelerates-while-europe-deliberates-on-the-clean-energy-transition India also has ambitious targets including 100GW of PV by 2022. Expansion is underway in many other parts of Asia, as well as in South America and Africa: http://www.ren21.net/status-of-renewables/global-status-report/ So the prospects for a global energy transition still look quite good, with, according to Energydata,  global energy intensity, the average amount of energy needed to produce a unit of GDP, declining by 3% last year.

However, the use of coal remains a problem and grid integration and balancing issues have to be faced as renewables expand. So too does energy saving. It’s wise therefore not to be too optimistic. While some progress has certainly been made, there is still a long way to go. In its latest analysis of trends in world energy Enerdata saysachieving the goals discussed at the COP21 (1.5 to 2° temperature increase by the end of the century), in fact requires a lasting stagnation of global energy consumption and a strong reduction of emissions. Thus, with a global GDP growth assumption of 3% per year, this would imply an average carbon intensity reduction target of 5 to 6% per year.’ www.enerdata.net/enerdatauk/press-and-publication/publications/peak-energy-demand-co2-emissions-2016-world-energy.php

However, even if the political will may not be so apparent in some countries, the potential for more rapid expansion is there, with many scenarios outlining how 80% or more of global electricity can be supplied by renewables by around 2050: see my last post for an example. Moving beyond the immediate problems and issues, and adopting  a forceful progressive but also critical global approach, as I mentioned in my last post, the US Post Carbon Institute’s magnum opus  Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy,  by Fellows Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, looks at ‘ the inevitable transition to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources’. Nevertheless, as I indicated, it doesn’t see this as a simple technical fix, with new energy sources just replacing old dirty ones- it says the way in which energy is used will have to change. That’s partly since renewables have technical and operational limitations, which it explores carefully. As mainly low energy density intermittent sources, they cannot sustain the sort of wasteful economic growth we have seen in the past, but should be able sustain a more balanced future. Some good thoughtful stuff, covering key issues like the limits of fuel and material substitution and the energy/carbon debts associated with making the transition to 100% renewables. Though generally positive about the future it seeks to counter excessive technical optimism: we have to learn to live within limits. Free at: http://ourrenewablefuture.org

So, what’s the bottom line? There is a need for radical change in energy technology and in our way of using energy. Although in its latest Energy Technology Perspectives, the International Energy Agency says that ‘progress deploying clean energy technologies worldwide is still falling worryingly short of what is needed’, the technology is available or can be made so soon, with costs falling.  A tipping point may have been reached in the process of change, although it may take time to develop fully: http://moneyweek.com/coal-and-renewable-energy-tipping-point/ While cautious optimism, coupled with careful assessment of the limits, seems reasonable, that assumes that the political and social will can be mustered to make the changes and meet the challenges. And that is less clear. But we must try, and this analysis of what social change issues need to be considered seems sensible: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/6/064014.

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Our Renewable Future- some US views

By Dave Elliott

Several organizations have formulated proposals for transitioning to 100% renewable energy, nationally or globally. In one of the most recent, developing on their earlier 100% global scenario, US academics Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi and their team have spelt out how 139 countries can each generate all the energy they will need from wind, water and solar (WWS) technologies by 2050, in substantial detail.

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Grid Integration of Renewable Energy

By Dave Elliott

Eric Martinot has been one of the key people behind the indispensable annual REN21 Renewable Energy Network publications reviewing the state of play with renewables globally: see  The latest one says renewables now supply around 24% of global electricity. Martinot has also taken time out to look in detail at renewable integration issues, and this work has led to some excellent publications, including a useful non-technical overview ‘Grid Integration of Renewable Energy – Flexibility, Innovation, Experience’ for the Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2016 (February 2016). It focusses on the concept of flexibility, which it sees as vital for balancing variable renewables, including small continual changes, sudden large swings in availability, requiring rapid ramp-up of backup plants or other balancing measures, as well as for occasional longer periods of low input.

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PV solar: big isn’t always better

By Dave Elliott

PV solar is now big – with 227GW installed around the world. But large solar farms apart,  much of it is in small roof-top units. Would bigger arrays be better? Certainly economies of scale suggest large-scale projects are generally more cost-effective than small ones. That holds up well for wind, but does it also hold for PV solar?

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All Energy: an ecumenical approach

By Dave Elliott

The All Energy Conference in Scotland, despite its title, usually focuses on renewables but, some feel provocatively, it has of late also included sessions on nuclear. A petition was raised against this, with over 1,700 signatories, but an ecumenical approach does have its attractions – we get to hear from all the contenders and can form an impression of the overall state of play. Better surely than a partisan ‘no platform’ stance?

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The end of power utilities? Maybe not just yet…

By Dave Elliott

Local generation is challenging the power utilities in the US and elsewhere. Some of the implications of that trend are reviewed in a useful series of studies by the US Lawrence Berkeley National Labs on Future Electric Utility Regulation which look at Regulation in a High Distributed Energy Resources Future i.e. in the context of a potential future with a high reliance on energy efficiency, peak load management, distributed generation and storage.

One of  Berkeley Lab’s  studies (No.1 in the series) focuses on regulation of Distributed Energy Resources in terms of  advantages and disadvantages from the perspectives of utilities and customers and the potential role (if any) of the big power utilities in the future. The report says that the emergence of distributed energy resources (DERs) that can generate, manage and store energy on the customer side of the electric meter is widely recognized as a transformative force in the power sector’. It suggests that, as DERs become competitive in price and performance for many customers, ‘utilities will face reduced sales volume, more elastic customer demand, and greater opportunities to substitute DER optimization for traditional utility assets and services. It expects that ‘dramatic reductions in the cost of regulated distribution networks will be sought by all stakeholders’, and, although that could be good for all concerned, it raises the question of whether utilities will or should bother trying to enter DER markets, given what might be diminishing returns.

Certainly it says that it is not a straightforward decision, quoting Gregory Aliff, Beyond the math: Preparing for disruption and innovation in the US electric power industry, (Deloitte 2013): ‘A decision to transition to a higher overall risk profile will likely involve significant internal debate and high probability of negative reactions from the financial markets and shareholders. This barrier may ultimately be deemed insurmountable – and as a consequence, new business alternatives may be severely constrained.’

That has evidently already been judged to be the case in Germany, where companies like RWE and E.ON have in effect lost monopoly control of the consumer electricity market as prosumer self-generation  and local energy co-ops have spread, with PV solar especially challenging the utilities’ gas-fired plants in the lucrative peak demand market. The big utilities have had to retreat to servicing this new decentralised market (which accounts for around 40% of Germany’s renewable capacity) and managing the grid. The Berkeley report seems to suggest something similar may happen in the US – but with the added issue of trying to ensure that consumers stay on the grid. There’s evidently concern about ‘grid defection’. That would make managing the system (e.g. balancing variable renewables and variable demand) much harder, potentially undermining the role of DERs and making life hard for the utilities.

Instead, the Berkeley Lab report says that ‘by facilitating DERs, utilities can both lower their costs and increase the benefits they can offer customers who deploy DERs, providing an incentive to remain connected to the distribution system rather than defect from it’.  It adds ‘the fundamental role of the utility will evolve to support this lower cost, higher value service that can be provided when customer-facing DERs are coordinated to not only provide customer services, but to create value for the distribution utility and grid as well. However, that evolution may occur in different directions. One points towards a major utility presence in sourcing, financing and optimizing DERs for customers. The other points towards a major role for competitive firms in not only providing DERs through competitive channels, but also in competing to tailor DERs’ performance and optimize the total value they can create in this emerging, three-sided market comprised of customers, distribution utilities and the grid itself.’

The report also suggests that, in the US context, regulators may in any case not let utilities enter DER markets, quoting a comment in a recent New York Public Service Commission Order: ‘Markets will thrive best where there is both the perception and the reality of a level  playing field, and that is best accomplished by restricting the ability of utilities to participate’. Before the New York Public Service Commission, Order Adopting Regulatory Policy Framework and Implementation Plan, Case 14-M-101, Proceeding on Motion of the Commission in Regard to Reforming the Energy Vision, Feb. 26, 2015, p. 67.

The Berkeley Lab report seeks to steer in between rival views. One says that, having lost their market monopoly, the utilities will fade away, the other that their supply system will always be cheaper than DERs, or if not, that utilities would be best suited to deploying DERs. Instead, the report says that the utilities will not disappear, but they will have to change their role, from monopoly suppliers to energy service companies and new decentral market enablers, with only limited involvement in generation themselves, as opposed to supporting local distributed generation by others.

Maybe so. They do after all have the expertise, even if they may have lost the trust of consumers. And their traditional markets. Though the exact balance between the various possible elements of the new role that utilities might play is unclear, with the report suggesting that in one, utilities successfully evolve to play the major role in using DERs to provide services to customers, while in the other, ‘these functions are increasingly performed by competitive firms using advanced and largely decentralized digital technologies, and the utility “sticks to its knitting” in terms of providing and maintaining infrastructure needed to deliver basic energy and capacity services, while depending on DERs to entice its customers to remain connected to the system and help the utility maintain sustainable cost levels’.

 Either way, though, their role will be very different from now – and that’s a conclusion that has emerged after just an initial wave of successfully grass-roots decentralized power initiatives. Who knows what may come next, with, for example, pressure for municipal-level energy projects beginning to emerge and some US prosumers banding together in local shared ‘community solar’ micro-grid schemes and peer-to-pear trading: www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2016/05/municipal-solar-and-microgrids-a-pv-market-outlook.html  and www.smartgridtoday.com/public/Solar-CEO-sees-clout-growing-for-energy-prosumers.cfm. It does seem that we are moving away from centralised monopoly power. Though against some opposition, as this report from the US indicates: https://ecowatch.com/2016/01/29/rooftop-solar-wars/

Battles over net metering, with utilities trying to limit their losses, may lead more consumers to consider going off-grid. A recent Wired article claimed that, with domestic self-generation, smart meters and local storage  ‘the national grid itself may become less important’, in that ‘we could be living in a world where consumers have super-efficient homes and are mainly generating on site’. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2016-01/25/smart-grids-empower-users  Certainly some say off-grid systems can be viable in some locations: www.academia.edu/25363058/Emerging_Economic_Viability_of_Grid_Defection_in_a_Northern_Climate_Using_Solar_Hybrid_Systems.

That may happen to some degree in some countries and locations but, overall, the reality seems to be that grids, linking to larger geographically-spread generation projects, will remain vital for balancing local variations in supply and demand, although utilities will have to adapt to a new pattern of energy generation and use.

*The Berkeley Lab reports: Report No 1: Corneli/Kihm, Electric Industry Structure and Regulatory Responses in a High Distributed Energy Resources Future.’ Report No 2 in this ongoing series looks at market design and distribution issues, including local peer-to-peer exchanges between projects and consumers.

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Capacity market mess

By Dave Elliott

The UK’s new Capacity Market auction process aims to ensure that there is enough capacity to meet demand by contracting with suppliers to be available when needed. However, it has failed to deliver any new gas projects, as well as failing to back much in the way of demand-side balancing – just 456MW. As with the first round, which gave contracts for 2018-19, it’s ended up mainly just backing old gas, coal and nuclear plants – with £1bn in contracts for 46GW overall for 2019-20. Most only get 1 year contracts, but the 650MW of new small diesel sets have 15 year contracts, and in all £155m. The 220MW of existing diesel get £93m. So much for clean energy!

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Renewable growth continues

By Dave Elliott

While most future projections show global renewable energy expanding rapidly, some are more cautious and also present optimistic views on oil futures. For example, BP’s Energy Outlook 2016 sees oil still booming up to 2035, although it does see the use of coal falling and renewables expanding: ‘Renewables are expected to account for more than a third of EU power generation by 2035’. However, welcome though that view is, Carbon Brief said, ‘this sits awkwardly against the fact that renewables already supplied a third of EU power in 2014 and continue to expand rapidly’.  

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China accelerates renewables

By Dave Elliott

The Chinese National Renewable Energy Centre (CNREC) says China could get 85% of its electricity and 60% of all its primary energy from renewables by 2050, with wind and solar PV both exceeding 2TW of installed capacity by 2040.

The nation certainly seems to be trying to head that way. Under its new 5 year plan it aims to more than double its wind energy capacity (to 250GW), and nearly treble solar capacity (to 160GW), accelerating well ahead of the EU.

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Balancing green power

By Dave Elliott

If the use of renewables is to expand further, ways have to be found of compensating for their variability. Fortunately there are many, as I have outlined in a new book ‘Balancing green power’, produced for the Institute of Physics. It sets out to show how, taken together, they can help balance grid systems as increasing amounts of renewable capacity is added, helping to avoid wasteful curtailment of excess output and minimising the cost of grid balancing. The options include flexible generation plants, energy storage systems, smart grid demand management and supergrid imports and exports.

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