The highs and lows of renewable energy

There is no denying the green revolution that is in full force all over the globe. Governments have set ambitious targets which has mobilised various industries to embrace and support significant change. However, just like any other initiative, the process of capturing and implementing green energy schemes has its pros and cons. We take a deeper look into the intricate details of renewable energy…

Intermittent in nature

One of the most obvious challenges with renewable energy is the intermittent supply and its unpredictability. When the sun doesn’t shine or when wind doesn’t blow, energy supply will be down. The UK has perhaps more of a problem, or simply just ‘bad weather’ depending on perspective, than many other geographies. This of course means that National Grid has a difficult task of analysing and forecasting expected weather patterns and therefore predicting energy yield from satellite images. These are essential skills that have been recruited over the past 10 years as NG’s strategy has evolved.

Cost of renewables

The cost of installing renewable energy was once a huge barrier to its adoption globally. Today its mandate and relevance is so strong that cost is simply a hurdle to overcome. This is also helped by the fact that the cost of renewable energy has come down by a significant amount over the past decade. The International Renewable Energy Agency highlighted the fact that half of new solar and wind installations undercut fossil fuels in 2019. Other renewable energy technologies have followed suit as costs have declined.

Losses due to transportation of energy

Electricity passes through large and complex networks of transformers, overhead lines, cables and other equipment before reaching the end users. These transmission and distribution networks are not 100% efficient, no system can be. The greater the distance energy travels, the greater the loss, as heat and sound is generated throughout as a bi-product of transmitting significant current over the network. Now, the loss of energy experienced as it is distributed across the country is not exclusively a ‘renewables problem’. This has been an issue for decades predating renewables. However, it does mean that the UK cannot simply spin up thousands of windfarms in the North Sea and call it a day. Governments need a more distributed approach across the country to maximise the use of generated energy and will also have to tackle those who have doubts over such green initiatives. However, even the most difficult customer would perhaps concede to the idea of a clean solar farm over a traditional fossil or gas-powered energy plant.

Balancing the Grid

Today in the UK, a third of our energy comes from renewable sources. This image from National Grid ESO illustrates our energy consumption in July 2021. It is clear that we have made significant progress in generating and distributing renewable energy. However, the big task of balancing the grid becomes significantly harder when we consider a world in which renewable energy could potentially make up to 80-90% of the total energy mix. Grid balancing services from National Grid such as Demand side Response (DSR), Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR), Dynamic Containment and Firm Frequency Response (FFR) were introduced as a means for National Grid to manage “capacity squeeze” in the system. It is a basic fact that this industry will need to grow exponentially in order to support National Grid, as it eyes the transition to 2050 net zero emissions target, and, a deeper role for renewable and other cleaner energy in the future.

So, are we ready to give up on traditional energy generated by fossil fuels today? No, is the short answer. However, there are positive signs all across the energy industry to indicate that we are on the right path. We have come a long way, and by that I don’t mean just reaching renewable targets as indicated above. Our understanding and acceptance of the cleaner and more sustainable energy sources has also matured. Now, when we think about the cost of renewable energy, we no longer think about a basic fiscal analysis, but also consider the significant impact of climate change and planet itself. It is true that this has become a much deeper and philosophical debate.

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