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How Electrification Can Stop Climate Change
Electrification is at the heart of the energy transition. But what exactly is electrification – and what are the implications for grid and distribution system operators?
Ask what “energy transition” means and the first thing most people think of is renewable generation. Green energy is crucial to the energy transition – and wind turbines and solar farms provide tangible proof that things are changing.
But the energy transition isn’t only about new ways of generating electricity. It’s also about new ways of using it. Transforming consumption will be just as important as renewable generation if climate goals are to be achieved.
Electrification holds the key to decarbonising the energy system. Once something is converted to electrical operation – transport and heating are examples – emissions at the point of use are eliminated, provided that the source of electricity is renewable.
The need for electrification is urgent because an enormous amount of downstream consumption still relies on burning fossil fuels.
To put this in perspective, nearly two-thirds of Europe’s final energy consumption – in our homes, transport and industry – comes from burning carbon directly in one form or another. Electricity accounts for only a fifth of all final consumption.
Electricity’s share of final consumption will need to increase substantially if the goal of limiting the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels is to be realised.
Two of the biggest targets for electrification are transport and heating.
Transport has vast decarbonisation potential. To put this in context, electricity today accounts for just 1% of total transport energy consumption in Europe – including electric vehicles (EVs) and railways. The scope for electrification is therefore vast.
Transport electrification is a multi-decade project. Yet demand for EV charging already threatens grid bottlenecks in some places. Finding cost-effective ways to get electricity from turbine to tarmac is a priority – and it holds the key to tackling Europe’s transport emissions of more than one billion tonnes per year.
Space and water heating accounts for more than three-quarters (78.4%) of final energy consumption in the residential sector in Europe. Today, most of this energy comes from gas and oil. Electrification has clear potential to reduce emissions dramatically.
Like transport, heating electrification is a long-term project that will require adaptation of the existing housing stock and progressive improvements in the energy efficiency of new buildings.
It will also require big changes to power networks. Grids will need reinforcement to handle new loads, including ground and air-source heat pumps. In parallel with this, there will be a growing need to model factors such as clustering, transformer capacity and power quality impacts.
New grid technologies
Transmission and distribution system operators are at the heart of the energy transition. But the challenges they face are huge. On the one hand, grid upgrades are needed to enable new demand. On the other, revenues are under intense pressure.
Innovative and cost-effective grid technologies have a vital role to play in optimising networks and enabling new demand. These include:
Enterprise digital twins: this technology allows grid operators to strike the best balance between performance, OPEX, CAPEX and risk. Using a digital twin, it is possible to predict pinch points and congestion, identify the best locations for new loads on existing infrastructure, engage stakeholders and optimise grids with targeted, evidence-based investments.
Subsea cable systems: high-capacity submarine cables will play an increasingly important role in delivering the energy transition. These cost-effective high voltage solutions not only connect offshore capacity to onshore consumers, but also provide interconnection between nations, boosting the competitiveness of renewables, enabling markets and strengthening energy security.
Superconducting solutions: superconducting cable solutions satisfy the growing demand for energy in cities and transport networks. Superconductors are capable of handling enormous currents, reducing the need for high-voltage distribution and transformers. They also require very little space – a key consideration in urban settings – and eliminate heating and EMF.
Technologies like these will play a decisive part in enabling the energy transition by reducing the cost and increasing the flexibility of connections between power generators and power users.