Decarbonisation 'needs detailed grid development plans'

Strategies are being drawn up, and investments made in renewable energy deployment. But this level of planning is missing for development of the grid needed to integrate increasing volumes of wind and solar

Europe's grid system will need to be expanded to integrate increasing volumes of wind and solar (pic credit: Tennet)
Europe's grid system will need to be expanded to integrate increasing volumes of wind and solar (pic credit: Tennet)

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Developing the grid infrastructure needed for the energy transition requires long-term strategies and investments now, but there is currently not the same level of activity for grids as there is for renewable energy, according to panellists at the recent WindEnergy Hamburg digital event.

More grid capacity will be needed to match the growth of electricity generation, especially wind and other renewables, members of the ‘Accelerating deployment: grid infrastructure’ panel agreed.

Development can take a long time, so policymakers and the industry need to act now to draw up roadmaps for the deployment of infrastructure, invest in projects, carry out  community engagement and then build the grids, panellists said.

“Permitting is slow and lengthy,” explained Thomas Östros, vice-president of the European Investment Bank (EIB). 

“New plans often raise sensitive environmental issues. It can take more than a decade to build a single transmission line.”  

Thomas Egebo, CEO of Danish transmission system operator (TSO) Energinet added that companies like his need to plan regionally and then extend across sectors – gas, electricity, hydrogen – and make use of existing grids, as well as building new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Jon Davies, commercial director at Britned – which owns a 1GW interconnector between the UK and the Netherlands – pointed out that early engagement with communities due to be affected by transmission lines and grid infrastructure can help smooth the process.

All of these requirements are complex and therefore time-consuming, Luca Bettonte, CEO of Italian renewables developer ERG noted.

However, despite the scale of the task at hand, the necessary plans do not yet seem to be in place, the panellists agreed.

Existing grids will need to be enhanced with digital tools and new transmission lines must be built to facilitate renewable energy growth in Europe. 

The European Commission earlier this year boosted its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target to 55% by 2030, and has also unveiled plans for 60GW of offshore wind by 2030. However, there is no similar blueprint for the grid infrastructure needed to reliably transmit and distribute output from this fleet.

“This is a technological challenge and lots of investment is needed,” said Rachel Ruffle, RES’s chief executive for northern Europe. 

“There are lots of investors interested because it is seen as a sustainable sector for the future. But it is more of a political and regulatory challenge. 

“I’m not really seeing the same detailed plan for grid infrastructure investment. Investors need to know: ‘Can the plans be relied upon, and are they bankable?’ 

“The lack of investment roadmap and upgrades is putting up the cost of renewable energy projects today.”

Ruffle noted that electrification — or sector coupling — of otherwise hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, transport, heating and cooling, will create a massive increase in electricity demand.

“When we think about sector coupling, we need to think about the increased demand from electrification or green hydrogen,” she said. “This type of big shift in electricity demand really needs to be taken into account.”

Long-term financing

The EIB’s Östros added that the bank was keen to finance grid infrastructure build-out, but warned: “Grid projects are costly. We will not finance all grid projects. 

“We have to verify that the new project makes economic sense.” 

However, Britned’s Davies suggested that given lengthy project delivery times, investments are needed now – even if they prove to be the wrong ones.

“The path that we take may need to evolve, but we can’t wait for the technology to evolve and become mainstream,” he said.

“There is a need to back a number of horses.”

Meanwhile, the ERG’s Bettonte warned: “It takes time to deploy the investment needed for grids. 

“This is a potential bottleneck for this transformation, not just in the way we generate power, but for the way we live.”

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