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Is electrification the route to a net zero carbon future? Part 3

Net Zero Carbon By Peter Ridge, Associate Director, Power – 06 December 2022

Electricity pylon with blue power cables against a pink blue sky


Peter Ridge in a white open collar shirt and suit jacket in front of a brick wall

Peter Ridge

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Demand and distribution – sharing renewable energy

In this final blog of our three-part series on electrification and the global net zero transition, we look at the two critical factors of demand and distribution.

The first step in any sustainability strategy should be to optimise the demand on resources. There are many ways to do this – however the main themes surround technological innovation / improvements and loss minimisation. Given that the net zero transition is expected to transfer demand from alternate energy carriers such as natural gas or oil into electricity, the overall electrical demand is only expected to increase.

Whilst energy efficiency would reduce demand, any such reduction would be far outweighed by the continued growth in power demand on a global scale with the net zero energy transition. The growth is driven by multiple factors - energy shifting associated with decarbonisation presents a significant part of this, but what is also important to note is the impact of overall human development and population growth on a global scale. As people's lives improve across the world, access to electricity and energy consuming devices rises, resulting in increasing demand. The population of the world also continues to increase as more people live longer whilst more are born - further increasing demand.

One thing is clear, tomorrow’s energy systems will need to be able to cope with the ever-increasing demands, given that demand is only moving in one direction - upwards!

Energy Transportation and grid operation
Conventional power grids were built around large, centralised, fossil fuel-guzzling power plants connected to demand centres. As the system evolved, it led to increasing local connectivity within the network but also at times extending internationally. As the demand and distances over which the power had to be transmitted increased, the network started operating at higher voltages.

However, then came in the idea of decarbonisation and decentralisation (remember the 4Ds?) resulting in a significant transformation in the development and operation of power grids. With the idea of decarbonisation, the installed capacity of renewable plants has increased and that of fossil fuel plants declined. Similarly, decentralisation has completely toppled the idea that power would always flow from the large, centralised power plants to the demand centres. Together, this has resulted in seismic changes in the way power networks are designed, developed, and operated today and will continue presenting further challenges as the net zero energy transition further develops and evolves.

As we saw earlier, the power demand in the future is only projected to grow – this would require transmission and distribution networks to significantly increase their capacity. To make matters worse, increasing decentralisation and the slow pace of digitalisation, makes identifying network congestion quite difficult as future power flows will be very different from today. However, the question that additionally needs to be answered is whether we really need to build new assets or can we utilise modern technology such IoT, smart devices, concepts such as machine learning/AI along with improvements in power transmission technologies to enhance the capability of existing assets?

There are also significant challenges in power generation and system operation due to the net zero transformation. We have already discussed the issue around intermittency with renewables, but due to a fundamental change in the physics governing these generation types, there has been a significant impact on system stability and operability margins in recent times. This topic is quite popular with commentators in this space, including us.

So, there we have it. We have already set sail on a road to Net Zero Carbon, and all parts of our energy sector will see transformative changes in the not-too-distant future. The destination is certain, but how we get there will continue to develop and evolve. We know there are challenges to overcome and solutions to develop, but it will need co-ordination across the whole energy system to ensure that the transition is not just sustainable but also affordable.