COP 26 – Reliable, sustainable energy needs diversity

COP 26 is well underway. Net zero dominates the agenda and one of the hottest topics will be how to achieve the scale and blend of energy generation to achieve this goal.

The size and complexity of the challenge is enormous, requiring interventions across all sectors.  For example, I was struck by a recent Grantham Institute publication which pointed out that, if the current cars on the road today were all electric, the increased demand would exceed the country’s current non-fossil fuel generation capacity.  Not lorries, vans, buses, trains or planes, just the cars.

It is clear that more renewable energy generation is necessary. More commitments and more investment are very welcome, but the nature of the investment needs to be clearly thought through.  What is the right recipe for a sustainable energy mix?  What role do advances in technology play?  At COP 26, discussions regarding renewable energy must embrace diversification, new technologies and new thinking as well as focusing on the scale of deployment of the twin monoliths of renewables, wind and solar.  

Why is a mix important?  Natural resources, whether that is sunshine, wind or rainwater, are variable and seasonal. Some resources, like geothermal, are simply not available at a meaningful scale in some geographies.  It is essential, for an efficient, reliable, cost-effective and sustainable energy system that we take this into account. Combining different technologies in different geographies with increased interconnection between those geographies has to be the way forward. 

Sounds simple?  There may be a few flies in the ointment; not least of all that these geographies don’t necessarily respect national borders and may require international cooperation at an unprecedented scale. 

What is wrong with decking the halls with solar and wind?  Dependency on only one or two renewable resources will lead to intermittent periods of reduced production.  We have seen this happen this year with wind resource being significantly lower than usual.  Battery storage at a scale that could deal with the size and duration of this issue is a fair way off, so there is a risk that we extend the time that we need the fossil fuel crutch to fill the gaps. 

To take a modest example; while brighter minds than mine are working on technological innovation that will bring about longer duration storage, I think that there may be some very old solutions that could help us along the way. The IEA calls hydropower “the forgotten workhorse of renewables”.  A consistent and reliable producer of energy, it can also operate as a very long duration energy storage solution by controlling water flows in reservoir systems. 

A sudden influx of large-scale dams across Europe is unlikely and undesirable. Smaller run-of-river facilities with chains of smaller reservoirs that have been in situ for decades, if not hundreds of years, have more potential and much less environmental impact. These hydropower facilities are often significantly underinvested and frequently operated in the same way as they have been for decades.  The time may be right now for a marriage of the oldest form of energy storage and the newest form of “internet of things” (IoT) technology. Across our modest portfolio at Downing, we are trying to see what is possible by combining arrays of sensors measuring everything from water levels, temperature, flow, viscosity and pressure differentials to temperatures on specific bearings in our turbines. We are also aggregating this with meteorological and energy markets data and analysing it with the assistance of AI.    

If we assemble a more diverse energy system, with production and storage located at the places where the geographies and the natural resources best suit; if we can use advances in technology and communication; if we can increase interconnection of grids, then we may be able to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy.  COP26, over to you….

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