The transition to net zero is the biggest challenge facing the world today. A critical part of this is making clean energy work at scale.
The upside is that there is clear will across the globe to ramp up the amount of energy produced from renewable sources. Triggered by the global energy crisis, we have seen unprecedented movement towards renewables: in December, the IEA found that the world was set to add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the past 20.
But while it’s great to see the urgency with which global governments are pushing renewables, there are some roadblocks that need to be addressed without delay.
The first is around the nature of renewables and their inherent intermittency. And while there are clear solutions for this, they cannot be fully realised without addressing the second issue: grid constraints and bottlenecks.
The intermittency challenge
Why is intermittency such a big deal when it comes to renewables? Put simply, the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. Most renewables, by nature, produce intermittent power. Take wind power, for example - as wind speed varies across a region, so does the energy produced by a wind farm.
It’s worth noting that wind and solar in particular complement each other well and help in part to address intermittency issues. This is because wind is often stronger at night, whereas solar generates electricity in daylight hours, so together they help level out the peaks and troughs when it comes to generation.
In 2010, the share of renewables in Britain’s energy mix was less than 20%. This figure has more than doubled in the last decade. However, as more renewables come on to the grid, the UK will be increasingly exposed to the risks of these periods of low production. We’re already seeing volatility and instability as grid operators struggle to balance this intermittency. Take for example one day in November last year, when wind energy alone generated 70% of the UK’s electricity, then fast forward to [this month/March this year], when the National Grid had to put backup coal plants into action to combat freezing temperatures across the country and the low winds that reduced wind power generation.
But there are powerful ways to solve these challenges. These include through a mixture of energy storage, like batteries; harnessing forces like inertia in new ways, such as through carbon-free sources that keep the electricity system stable; and by making energy generation and use smarter – such as by using better insights and emerging tools like machine learning to deploy energy more efficiently.
Currently, owners of storage assets are met with difficult decisions on when to charge, discharge and generate energy, meaning we rarely see the full impact of renewables. The UK is on the path towards better fixes but more investment is needed into these solutions detailed above if we really want to address intermittency head on.
If strides forward can be made here, this will help solve the problem of renewables working at scale.
But there is work to do to get to this point: renewables can’t work at scale if they don’t have the ability to scale.
While we’re seeing a lot of investment in renewables projects themselves, there are major roadblocks when it comes to developers being able to connect new capacity to grids.
Earlier this year, renewables groups in the UK warned that delays in getting projects connected to the grid had reached a record 13 years. This comes off the back of the National Grid estimating that there are 600 projects with a combined capacity of 176GW currently in the queue for grid connections in England and Wales, made up of new generation and interconnector schemes - with many focused on renewable energy or battery storage. To put the scale of the problem into perspective, there is currently a total of 64GW of general connected capacity in place in the UK today.
Typically, developers are unable to hold a project for such a long period of time, meaning that ultimately projects fall through and the UK as a whole loses out on the renewable energy it urgently needs.
The National Grid is, it has to be said, taking action to address these issues, in consultation with Ofgem and the wider industry. For example, the Grid has recently implemented what it calls ‘queue management’, including allowing developers to leave the queue without penalty in order to make way for projects that are further developed, and pressing for license changes to bring forward projects that have secured planning permission.
There is also the issue of physical grid constraint – which means the network can’t physically transfer power from one area to another. An example of this is the grid being unable to connect large generation sites to the areas of demand, resulting in instability and wastage.
Faced with these inefficiencies and delays, the calls from renewables groups for sweeping action are growing louder. And without meaningful solutions, the problems the UK’s grid is currently facing could become systemic issues that in the worst-case, lead to developers reconsidering the scale of their renewable investments in the UK.
If we are serious about the UK reaching its net zero goals, these grid bottlenecks need to be addressed urgently, and we must collectively seek ways to foster greater understanding, R&D and investment in solutions to the intermittency challenge. While it will take a concerted effort, the rewards for our planet will be immeasurable.