COP26 may not have produced the unequivocal commitment to cutting emissions many wanted to see, but the pledges that did come out of the conference signaled a continued cutting back of the use of fossil fuels. This is all part of transitioning the global energy system from carbon to more sustainable sources. Yet two things threaten the gains: the scale and cost of decarbonization and the unpredictable and volatile nature of renewable energy.
The cost of decarbonization
BloombergNEF estimates that in the energy sector alone, achieving net-zero emissions will require between $92 trillion and $173 trillion of infrastructure investments by 2050, more than doubling the current rate of investment.
Part of the challenge is replacing existing systems and processes. Seb Henbest, BloombergNEF’s Chief Economist, told Raconteur that, “There is a rate-of-change problem. Getting the technology cheap is one thing, but then you have to deploy it through the global economy to displace the carbon-intensive generation infrastructure. That takes time.”
The unpredictability of renewable energy
At the same time, the renewable energy sources needed to achieve net-zero emissions are unpredictable and volatile. The variable outputs from wind and solar present a challenge to traditional energy grids, the primary way of distributing electricity to consumers. While a marvel of 20th-century engineering, grids based on the distribution of centralized power generation struggle to cope with the introduction of other sources. Crucially, they lack the means to stabilize unpredictable energy flows.
This is where smart grids come in. Using digital technologies and data, they are designed to handle the sort of variable and bidirectional flows of electricity and information that new forms of energy bring.
As François Bélorgey, Innovation Development VP in the Technology and Global Innovation Division at Orange, noted in a blog last year: “A smart grid is a produced and stored energy distribution network that’s managed with the aim of minimizing power losses based on real-time and forecast data, including information captured from the end consumer. In reality, the main difference between a traditional power grid and a smart grid is that smart grids are equipped with an information system used dynamically in real time, enabled by 5G, IoT sensor networks, edge computing, cloud data lakes, VR/AR devices and IT/OT security.”
The results are significant. One deployment in the Netherlands combines heating, cooling, electricity, hydrogen, energy efficiency, storage and mobility to provide a tailor-made system for smart cities and neighborhoods, all managed by an artificial intelligence digital layer. It claims potential efficiency gains of up to 80%, as a result reducing energy bills by 20%.
Why does storage matter to smart grids?
Storage offers a solution to the challenge of energy-source reliability. By capturing energy when production is working, grids can store it for when it is required. This means peak times of the day are covered, even if the likes of wind and solar sources are not producing energy at that moment.
Currently, there are six main energy-storage technologies: thermal storage, compressed air energy storage, hydrogen, pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), flywheels and batteries. When batteries are involved, it’s known as Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS), with lithium-ion batteries most widely used, particularly in electric vehicles (EVs).
Currently, PHES accounts for around 96% of global storage power capacity and 99% of global storage energy volume. It works by using two reservoirs at different altitudes: energy is created by the down flow of water being released from the upper reservoir to the lower one. Turbines and generators convert the energy into electricity, and the water is pumped back to the upper reservoir. However, the geographically restricted nature of this technology can make it expensive to serve all locations covered by national smart grids.
Batteries are key to energy transition
BESS, on the other hand, are significantly smaller and not tied to the presence of additional utilities and natural geography (i.e., a water supply and a variety of altitudes). When part of EVs, they are completely mobile, offering grids additional flexible storage capacity. And with sales of EVs expected to grow by more than 25% annually through to 2030, there could be a significant number of mobile storage solutions in circulation.
BESS can supply electricity back to the grid via vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. The EV would need to be stationary, not required for a journey in the immediate future and still have some charge in its battery.
When this happens would be determined by the “smart” part of the smart grid. Data sharing between vehicle and grid would allow it to determine whether the EV supplies electricity back to the grid or keeps it stored in the battery. With most domestic vehicles estimated to be parked for 90% of the time, there is a significant opportunity for grids to call on vehicle-based battery storage when demand peaks.
Bonus benefits – additional income and life beyond the EV
As with other forms of supplying electricity back to the grid, such as solar panels on houses, any energy would be sold, providing additional income for both individuals and, where they own fleets of EVs, businesses as well.
BESS also has a life beyond the vehicle. Rather than simply falling out of use as new vehicles enter circulation, lithium-ion batteries can end up being deployed as static storage systems. In doing so, they offer additional storage capacity to increase the reliability of the grid. They can also contribute to faster EV charging, as vehicles can be connected to them directly, rather than to the grid, at charging stations.
Connectivity and the success of energy transition
Smart grids require reliable connectivity, with the ability to share data between battery, vehicle and grid reliably, consistently and securely. Everyone involved in smart grids, from government agencies and energy regulators to utilities companies and their technology partners, need to ensure that existing communication networks incorporate 5G technology, with the continued deployment of IoT technology also a prerequisite. However, if executed properly, a V2G approach that uses the combined accelerated adoption of EVs with the rollout of smart grids could play a major role in facilitating the transition of energy sources from carbon to renewables.
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