Q&A: what do EirGrid’s future energy scenarios tell us?

National grid operator has outlined three potential outcomes over a 20-year period

The scenarios don’t include nuclear energy, a fuel source that continues to be hugely controversial and costly

The scenarios don’t include nuclear energy, a fuel source that continues to be hugely controversial and costly

 

“We can no longer afford to change slowly,” Ireland, electricity transmission system operator EirGrid has said in its latest evaluation of what the Irish energy future might look like. The comment comes against a background of an imminent global energy revolution as the adoption of renewable energy sources and a switch away from fossil fuelsgathers momentum over coming decades. Decarbonisation is going happen, EirGrid states; it’s just a question of pace.

What is driving the energy transition?

A combination of energy and climate change targets are the driving forces behind the change; both at national and EU level. This straddles adoption of renewable energy – especially in power generation – and reducing carbon emissions which cause global heating.

How does EirGrid fit in?

EirGrid develops and operates the national electricity grid, so everyone has power when and where they need it. The grid takes electricity from where it is generated and delivers it to the distribution network operated by ESB which powers every home, business, school, hospital, factory and farm on the island.

It also supplies power directly to some of Ireland’s largest energy users. A big emerging demand is data centres.

Under the Government’s climate action plan, a key target is generating 70 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030. This is a major challenge on top of EirGrid’s notable success to date in adopting renewables.

And it has to be done in circumstances where electricity demand is likely to increase due to a growing economy and rising population. What’s more, major sources of renewables are weather dependent ie – to state the obvious – energy/electricity is not generated by turbines if the wind is not blowing, and solar PV panels are largely inactive if the sun doesn’t shine. So there is a high degree of uncertainty, though overall amounts of renewables generated are rising significantly.

What’s the point of scenario planning?

The resilience and stability of the grid is of paramount importance within that energy mix. So to reduce risk, notably in how the grid is operated and in relation to the grid itself (including capacity issues), EirGrid has been engaged in an intensive exercise of trying to envisage the shape of the electricity system up to 2040.

A critical stage was reached this week with publication of its Tomorrow’s Energy Scenarios report. It has produced three scenarios; “credible pathways for how the power system may transform over the next 20 years”. A fourth was dropped because it was simply insufficient to meet that target of 70 per cent renewables and more demanding EU energy targets coming into place.

Why can’t a clearer direction of travel be charted?

The energy transition does not come with certainty because it will be shaped by political, economic, technological and environmental changes. Carbon capture and storage (CCS), for instance, is not yet a proven option at scale.

But it’s worth looking at the scenarios in some detail as you can immediately see different factors at play and certain trends likely to emerge as a consequence. They are:

Centralised Energy – Ireland achieves a low-carbon future that is very much plan-led. There is step change in uptake of electrified transport and heating. Electrification of the existing housing stock occurs in tandem with improved thermal efficiency due to deep retrofitting homes. Although uptake is significant, there is only a modest level of grid flexibility offered from consumer technologies.

Renewable electricity is mainly generated by large-scale sources, notably offshore wind. The diversity of the renewables mix increases due to reducing technology costs and the design of energy auctions. CCS technology is developed to decarbonise fossil fuel generation.

Delayed Transition – This is where progress on decarbonisation is achieved but pace is insufficient to meet climate objectives. Policy measures fail to break down barriers to a systematic clean energy transition. Consumer behavioural change is modest, with a gap remaining between climate change awareness and action.

This means the shift to electrified transport and, in particular, heating by the adoption of heat pumps occurs later than anticipated. Deployment rates of renewable and low-carbon technologies are slower than required. Data centre growth, albeit sizeable, turns out to be lower than forecast.

Coordinated Action – This reflects a world where sustainability and adopting the principles of a circular economy is core to future decisions. Citizens/consumers recognise climate change as a risk and take appropriate action.

Policy measures are targeted at and embraced by energy consumers and communities, leading to a more decentralised electricity system, though “centralised decarbonisation solutions” still play an important role in moving towards energy and climate targets.

Consumer adoption; “the internet of things” and AI all help realise a change in consumption patterns, and assist in managing the daily peak in electricity demand.

There is significant growth in generation connected to the low voltage electricity network. Micro generation is accompanied by battery storage, yielding high levels of self-consumption – this is the scenario where demand is highest.

What’s in and what’s not?

The scenarios don’t include nuclear energy, a fuel source that continues to be hugely controversial and costly though it’s undeniably a zero-carbon option. Less controversially, it envisages the use of gas from a variety of sources for many years to come. The first and third scenarios are different ways to achieve that key 70 per cent target.

So what happens next?

These “final scenarios” will be the basis of different power system studies, where each is evaluated in relation to the grid out to 2040. That will help EirGrid identify future needs, including capacity issues, on the transmission system “brought about by changes in electricity generation, electricity demand, electricity storage or interconnection – to the North or the continent via France. The result will be presented in a “system needs assessment” report to be published by the first quarter of 2020.

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