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More renewables and differing dependencies on nuclear – what will a new power mix mean for the future of energy grids across Europe?

The energy crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a key driver to ramp up the rollout of fresh clean energy policies across Europe. The renewed focus has been to establish greener, more affordable, and more secure energy systems across the continent.

Europe has long relied on gas from Russia to provide a stable base supply for its energy needs, and its sudden removal has left countries scrambling to fill the gap.

The need for a new, steady supply of energy has shifted governments towards more protectionist measures, with an aim to drive energy independence by improving and investing in power sources closer to home.

Many countries have begun to increasingly rely on renewable sources for energy generation, but these often provide intermittent power outputs. Along with the grids they feed into, most green energy sources are still very much in their infancy when it comes to providing dependable power that can be stored and released as needed.

These issues, and the lack of other options, have catalysed innovation in the renewables space. This has been buoyed by a growing investment pool, changing consumer preferences and lower costs, all of which reflect the increasing urgency of a rapid green transition. This means we’re seeing real change and commitment at a rate previously unseen.

As we collectively work towards the integration of secure renewable energy supplies, many countries have decided to complement their new energy mixes with an increased investment in nuclear power. Although not without controversies, it’s seen by many as a crucial way to advance the energy transition in the face of some of the challenges of renewables, by providing a cleaner energy source with a highly predictable, continuous output that can offer renewable technologies and markets time to mature.

In the UK, the Government has committed to plans to develop nuclear power alongside offshore wind and accelerated solar and hydrogen projects. France is following a similar approach, and was featured been in the news last week urging the EU to recognise the role of nuclear-derived electricity in meeting climate goals for 2050.

In contrast, Germany shut down its final three nuclear power plants last month as it plans to massively ramp up electricity production from solar and wind. However, this has raised eyebrows about energy security and pricing, as Germany has decided to continue to rely on fossil fuels while this tech is developed. These plans to remove their reliance on nuclear were put in place before the war in Ukraine and many have pushed back since, arguing that nuclear could help to solve this reliance on fossil fuels at a faster pace.

What will be the impact on our electricity grids of increasing renewables in the energy mix?

To answer this, we need to look at baseload power. Baseload is the minimum amount of electric power that is needed to be supplied to the grid at any given time to meet demand. To be confident in delivering a continual supply, this must come from a reliable source, or combination of sources, of electricity. Any electricity needs above and beyond this base can then be met with ‘peaking energy sources’, which are additional, less reliable sources like renewables, where the amount we draw from them is varied to match the fluctuating demand over the course of a day.

While we all want a more diverse energy mix, bringing more renewables onto the grid is not straightforward. Not only are there integration and maintenance costs, but there is also the very real problem of extensive grid delays to contend with while bringing different sources online.

Once more renewables are properly connected, there’s then the challenge of how to use an energy source that is, by its nature, intermittent and often unpredictable. Hydropower fluctuates with the amount of water available, solar panels are limited to daytime hours, and turbines can’t turn when there’s no wind. 

Whilst steps have been made to improve forecasting, particularly with weather and wind speed, ultimately there are still issues with being able to deploy renewable energy effectively. Huge innovation is needed in the energy storage space to plug the gap.

How can nuclear help stabilise grids as more renewables come into play?

Nuclear is certainly not a new power source, but the role it can play in transitioning to a carbon-free future is.

Nuclear power, particularly next-generation nuclear power with a closed fuel cycle (where spent fuel is reprocessed), is uniquely scalable, and environmentally advantageous.

Nuclear has traditionally been used as a baseload power source due to its stability and the way it can provide huge amounts of carbon-free power at the drop of a hat. This means it can be reactive to demand and fluctuate to fill in the gaps that renewables can’t, in a predictable and repeatable way.

That’s not to say it isn’t without its pitfalls. Nuclear power plants are extremely costly and time consuming to build, taking around 5-10 years – time that we just don’t have if we’re to reach net-zero as rapidly as possible. There’s also the risk of accident and the issue of storing waste that contains radioactive by-products.

However, there’s further argument for introducing nuclear, as future systems need to meet more stringent requirements on not just GHG emissions, but also other environmental pollutants such as mercury and nitrogen oxides. Nuclear, unlike many other forms of energy, meets these standards and does so at a competitive rate.

All of this makes nuclear a strong candidate for stabilising future energy grids as we play catch-up and develop ways to optimise the deployment and integration of renewables. 

What do we mean by optimisation?

The key to maximising the potential of renewable assets is to optimise their use – by making the asset as valuable as possible at the most optimal times. 

In the past, energy trading strategies have been based on two principles - market arbitrage which consists of buying power when the cost is low and selling it back to the grid at a higher price; or frequency response, which is a demand-side response system that utilises an asset’s ability to be rapidly deployed and balance frequency response fluctuations on the grid. 

Whilst nuclear will provide a stable baseload, we need to use the security it affords us to work towards making renewables more viable at scale, ready for a future that will almost solely rely on these sources.

This can be achieved by utilising optimisation services for energy assets, which connect renewable assets to the grid on a large scale and balance demand throughout the day.

Improvements in technology are making this possible, with new AI developments now able to refine forecasting to the point that it enables assets to respond at the right time and the right location in the grid, while minimising wastage.  

Final thoughts

Whilst Germany has closed its nuclear power plants recently in its quest to ramp up renewables, there are questions about the vulnerable state this has left the country in when it comes to energy independence and security.

Although nuclear is not without controversy, it can be used as an important building block in the green transition. Having a mix of nuclear and renewables opens up opportunities for countries to focus on building a more stable future that relies on renewables, without compromising on energy security, falling foul of intermittency issues or failing to meet the power demands of current generations.