To prevent further climate change, an energy transition is highly needed as we have previously discussed in ‘The energy transition can start in Paris’. This transition towards renewable energy source (RES) demands a major adaptation of the electricity grid. From a high-density grid using fossil fuels to one that integrates expansive windmill farms and solar panel fields, from a centralised grid using few fossil power plants to one that integrates consumers’ solar panels, and from a demand-driven grid to one that uses energy surpluses and peak-demand hours to steer energy consumption. This requires a transition towards a next generation energy landscape and Transmission Systems Operators play a crucial part in building it.
Super grids with super storage?
TSOs could adapt and expand our distribution and transmission networks to accommodate large amounts of wind mills and solar panels. Grid (capacity) expansion to connect offshore wind farms provides further opportunities for space-efficient solutions to add more RE to the electricity grid in places where electricity generation is high due to strong winds and where social consequences are small. Organised in regional and European programmes, TSOs discuss the future of a European super grid and integration within continental Europe and further abroad. For example, ministers of EU member-state and Norway, supported by their TSOs are united under the North Seas Countries’ Offshore Grid Initiative to implement in a coordinated way a North Sea offshore grid crucial for European market integration (see also the related research project NorthSeaGrid). By expanding the geographical scope of our grids, TSOs can unlock many places to harvest RE efficiently and abundantly, reducing or even solving the problem of intermittency. Furthermore, grid development will increase the possibility of large-scale energy storage using hydroelectric turbines.
Together with their governments, TSOs could strive towards more favourable grid regulations for RES compared to fossil fuels. In Germany for example, RE has preference over energy from fossil fuels and the electricity grid is obliged to take up RE. At times, this leads to overcapacity on the grid and forced reduction of electricity generation in fossil fuel based power plants. TSOs could help improve national and international regulations and provide incentives for safe management of the grid while allowing as much RE as possible.
TSOs could help transition to a hybrid energy system based on RES which is robust yet flexible. Redesign of the electricity landscape, the right regulatory framework and incentives via subsidies should be facilitated to consolidate this transition, both coming from bottom-up initiatives and top-down government activities. Since most forms of renewable energy are difficult to transport outside the electricity grid, decentralised energy systems and bottom-up initiatives have large potential. These initiatives need to be better embedded in their local physical and socio-economic landscape taking into account local society, land-use and socio-economic activities. Plenty of (partially) decentralised energy systems have proven to work perfectly, take for example the Danish island Samsø which uses only RE for its energy demand (TEDx talk), the self-sustaining Canary island El Hierro and the Energiewende in Germany. Allowing for hybrid energy systems with a robust super grid and more flexible decentralised energy systems based on different RES could be a main focus for TSOs.
A final opportunity for TSOs to take a leading role in the energy transition is to improve energy efficiency by developing and implementing smart grids. These highly intelligent grid designs provide for the possibility to further differentiate and reduce our energy use. High-consuming appliances, such as dishwashers and charging electric cars, could be used only during low-demand hours and incentives could be implemented to re-deliver electricity to the grid during peak-demand hours reducing the required production capacity without compromising for security of supply. The world’s first successful pilot project testing smart meters in 22 households started in 2009 in the north of the Netherlands. Due to the successful results of this project, Power matching city, many other European projects have followed this example.
Clean energy transmitted via smarter grids is widely available and is not only more sustainable but also more cost-effective than fossil fuels when taking into account climate impact. TSOs can lead the way in facilitating this transition but a societal transformation is needed to complete it: it’s up to us!