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How we can fuel the future

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Morten Wierod, President of Electrification at ABB, looks at some of the key technologies which will fuel the energy transition.

Global demand for energy continues to increase exponentially, yet climate change demands lower emissions. As we look to COP27’s ambition to move from pledges to action in the context of an increasingly uncertain geopolitical landscape, there will be an even greater onus on how utilities and industry can tackle both challenges.

This will see an accelerated shift towards not just clean and renewable fuel sources but innovative solutions which enable decarbonisation strategies, as we continue to redefine how we produce, distribute, manage and consume electrical energy.

From heat waves and wildfires in the headlines, to longer term concerns about climate change putting greater pressure on ecosystems and communities, there is no doubt that sustainability is the defining issue of our times.

Add to the equation growing concerns about the cost and availability of energy which is exposing the vulnerability of economies that rely on global fossil fuel supplies – coupled with soaring energy demand – and it’s clear that the world needs a swift and broad transition to sustainable energy.

The wide consensus is that national and international focus on climate must take a definitive shift from optimism and ambition to decisive action. For many of the world’s biggest economies and carbon emitters it is time to take action to ensure promises made at last year’s COP26 are delivered at speed.

The good news is that we already have many of the tools we need to solve these challenges. The task now lies in deploying and scaling up the key technologies which could play a focal role in slashing emissions and realising a low-carbon society.

Why energy storage is a key enabler of the energy transition

One of the most important climate change relevant innovations is one of the oldest – the humble battery. To understand why, we must first look at renewables. Science suggests solar and wind deployments are the cheapest ways to cut over a third of the required emissions reductions by 2030. But integrating these new energy producers to the existing mix is complex.

This is because most of the existing grid infrastructure is decades old and was only ever designed to manage a steady, reliable supply of energy under the assumption that the amount of energy fed into the grid is always roughly equal to the amount consumed. The inherent variability of wind, solar and hydroelectric, including potential imbalances in supply and demand and changes in transmission flow patterns, make balancing the grid more problematic. Without some form of backup, utilities run the risk of instability or even a blackout.

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) offer the obvious solution. Put simply, utility-scale BESS enables power generators to store excess energy and redeploy during periods of reduced energy generation, such as when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing, to help balance the grid and ensure reliability. Amid increased pressure to deliver green energy at volume, this approach offers an economical route to renewable integration while using existing infrastructure in the space of grid modernisation programmes. When partnered with digital capabilities, BESS also makes it easier to manage growing demand – including the impact of transport electrification.

But it isn’t just about utility-scale BESS. As more industrial and commercial operators pivot to self-generation to reduce energy costs and emissions, and gain energy security, energy storage offers a more effective way to manage energy by leveraging peak shaving, load shifting and maximisation of self-consumption. It can also provide critical backup power, preventing revenue impact in the event of a grid failure.

In line with the wider rate of digitalisation, the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled BESS is shifting the decarbonisation dial further. By harnessing the power of data analytics and machine learning, AI-enabled BESS can provide an accurate prediction of future supply and demand requirements ahead of time.

Amid an unpredictable energy picture, the insight afforded by this technology is a game-changer. Through predictive analytics, it will allow energy generators at all levels to store and distribute resources far better to make sure that every single kilowatt of clean energy is used to maximum effect – genuine energy efficiency in operation. Further opportunities in predictive maintenance and asset optimisation also ensures each renewable investment offers the maximum performance.

SF6-free – preparing for a more certain future

Alongside the adoption of clean energy sources, reaching climate neutrality, of course, also requires the reduction of greenhouse gases.

This was seen earlier this year as the European Commission announced progressive plans to tighten limits on human-made fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) and ozone depleting substances (ODS). This includes proposals to ban SF6 – a synthetic, high-polluting gas widely used as an insulating medium in switchgear – from new MV electrical equipment up to 24 kV by 2026, and up to 52 kV by 2030.

This means power system operators will soon have little choice but to begin their migration to more eco-friendly alternatives. 

Now or never

As we look ahead to COP27, there can be no question that it is ‘now or never’. Action has to overtake ambition if we are to achieve a low carbon future and the targets set. With many of the technologies already on hand to power the journey, governments, utilities and industry need to leverage these today, and commit to the necessary investments, to make the biggest impact to our future, where ‘survival of the greenest’ is the reality.

Morten Wierod

President of Electrification at ABB

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