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The carbon-neutral future is electric

Gerhard Salge, CTO of Hitachi Energy – an innovation-driven technology leader in power grids which is advancing a sustainable energy future for all – explains why electricity will be the backbone of the entire energy system

Electricity has improved our standard of living since its invention more than 200 years ago. However, over the next 30 years, the changes that will deepen electrification in the name of sustainability will go beyond anything we have seen before. The evolution of the total world energy system shows that global electricity consumption will more than double from around 20% (today) to significantly more than 40% of total energy demand by 2050. Certain regions of the world – like Europe – will go far beyond this.

Three building blocks are stacking up to deliver this carbon-neutral electric future: connecting larger volumes of wind, solar and hydro to the grids; electrifying the world’s transportation, building and industrial sectors; and, where direct electrification is either not efficient or impossible, introducing complementary and sustainable energy carriers. Combined, these blocks will give us the foundation upon which electricity will become the backbone of the entire energy system and on which sustainable societies can progress.

The most efficient, cleanest and cost-effective way to electrify the world is to build renewable energy capacity and harness energy from wind, sunshine and water that nature provides in practically unlimited reserves. As a result, we estimate that global renewable energy capacity will grow by much more than a factor of ten until 2050.

Electrification, powered by this huge growth in variable renewable power generation, brings a host of new challenges – but two stand out most. The first is tackling the complexity arising from a greater number of widely distributed and less predictable power generation sites. The second is the need to significantly upgrade and expand grid capacity to accommodate the rapid growth in demand.

The journey towards a carbon-neutral energy system is dependent upon future power systems that are extremely flexible

In order to manage fluctuating electricity production and new consumption patterns, our energy system needs to become more flexible, and new tools are required to deliver this. Innovative grid components using power electronics will provide the operational flexibility needed to enable grids to become more efficient. Sensors will provide the necessary information, and digital solutions will process the huge amount of information in intelligent grid control centres. This will enable faster decision making in a much more dynamic and complex environment, without compromising on reliability of the electricity supply.

The second challenge, expanding grid capacity, can be tackled in two ways: optimising the utilisation of current networks and upgrading and extending power systems. Here, we can rely on clever combinations of power electronics and digital technologies to optimise copper and iron efficiencies on existing power grids, and also on all new additional capacity installations.

One recent example is in Scotland, where a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) link is being built to connect Shetland to the Scottish mainland. The Shetland link will allow efficient transmission of renewable wind energy, increase reliability in the mainland grid and enhance the security of supply for Shetland. The link will contribute to the UK’s decarbonisation target of bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Hitachi Energy is also connecting the world’s largest offshore wind farm at Dogger Bank, located 130-190km off the North East coast of England, to the mainland transmission network at Teesside and Creyke Beck. These installations and others will significantly contribute towards the UK government’s goals of sourcing up to a third of its electricity from offshore wind by 2030.

Grid capacity will need to cope with more than twice the electrical energy of today. This includes the expansion of high-voltage networks and interconnections across regions, linking renewable energy generated in remote places, such as offshore wind farms.

From a demand-side perspective, this huge expansion will enable electrification to significantly rise in areas that have so far been low load regions – away from densely populated cities where demand is high. For example, through electrification, it will become easier to locate a growing number of data centres in secluded areas. And we can expect to see more industrial sites, such as steel plants and mining operations, turn to electrification in a move to convert away from carbon-intensive processes whilst simultaneously, increasing efficiency. Over the next thirty years, we are likely to see power systems also growing into geographical areas that, up to now, have rarely been taken into account in grid expansion planning.

The journey towards a carbon-neutral energy system is dependent upon future power systems that are extremely flexible. They will need to cope with increased complexity, brought about by the need to integrate bulk and distributed variable power generated from renewable sources.

Whenever grid flexibility is required, the first and most proven technical solution is grid expansion and interconnection. Once this reaches its limit, energy storage starts to play an important role in the pathway towards a carbon-neutral energy system. Battery storage for electricity has already made impressive strides over the past years. With the rise of variable renewable power production comes a greater need for short-term electricity storage to ensure the reliability of the power system. Battery technology is on its way to becoming the dominant solution for meeting short-term needs. It offers the highest flexibility and the most attractive cost-benefit ratio.

When planning and designing the future energy market, an important aspect that decision-makers should consider is not to overly rely upon one direction only. Power system expansion and interconnection offers opportunities to link time zones and even climatic zones instantaneously. Nevertheless, the future energy system needs both interconnections and energy storage. It should never be a question of building one or the other – because they are complementary.

Time is of the essence in the move towards a carbon-neutral energy system. There have been several welcome policy announcements and initiatives of late, setting ambitious targets. This includes the stimulus initiatives and goals to accelerate the European Union’s way forward, but also targets set by several further countries including the UK, Japan, China, India and South Korea.

While this is laudable, it is imperative that planning and execution cycles are accelerated to unlock the necessary investments in our energy infrastructure. Policymakers need to set a clear agenda and enable this to happen, which includes putting in place the right regulatory framework and ensuring a degree of collaboration in key areas such as grid codes and market mechanisms. The area of interconnected electricity networks is also becoming increasingly important to maximise the penetration of renewables. Collaboration will clearly be a key success factor.

Be it North Sea winds powering electric vehicles or solar power feeding air conditioning systems, a carbon-neutral energy system will reshape the world. The challenge is so big that there is no room for picking winners – we need all sustainable solutions, current and future. We should not waste our energy and time arguing about which is the most optimised option, but instead focus on building sustainable partnerships and accelerating implementation, only then we will make a real and timely impact.

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