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Europe’s energy transition: Secure power for a sustainable economy

Europe’s energy transition: Secure power for a sustainable economy

Technological and commercial innovation is accelerating as the European power market reaches the vital nexus between renewable and traditional power. PennWell’s Nigel Blackaby outlines the key developments and issues to be examined in detail at the POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe* conference and exhibition being held in Amsterdam in June 2015.

Europe’s power sector is experiencing radical and permanent change. The conventional model of supplying electrical energy to customers from central power plants via one-way systems is becoming increasingly challenged as a direct result of policies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and decrease the dependence on energy from fossil fuels. Europe’s power industry professionals are responding to this challenge to the status quo and will be debating the issues raised in this article at their industry conference later in the year.

The pace of change looks set to increase as the new package of climate and energy policies unveiled by the European Commission in early 2014 drives a fresh wave of clean tech investment. Designed to cut GHGs by 40 per cent against 1990 levels by 2030, the proposed framework includes a binding target for EU member states to source at least 27 per cent of their energy from renewable sources by the same date. A non-binding target to encourage countries to improve their energy efficiency by 25 per cent through the 2020s is also being considered.

The financial and operational implications of accommodating renewable energy and meeting emissions targets mean utilities must become a lot smarter in the way that they operate. This has driven the development of innovative business models, new technologies, and a new range of services that are radically replacing the traditional way of simply selling kilowatt hours (kWh).

Utilities and investors are now focusing on smart meter rollouts and deployment of technology at a distributed local level rather than making 30-year commitments to large power plants. But there is life in conventional plants yet, as state-of-the-art co-firing technologies allow biomass to be used as fuel alongside coal, with some plants now burning a mixture of both or even converting from coal to biomass completely.

Waste to energy

Biomass is derived from living or recently living organisms. It takes carbon out of the atmosphere while it is growing and returns it as it is burned, thus maintaining a closed carbon cycle with no net increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.

More importantly, it means that the by-products of industrial, commercial, and domestic consumption that would previously have been discarded as waste can now be reused as fuel for power. The use of biogas is rising, and technology manufacturers are responding accordingly with solutions around gasification and pyrolysis, where the fuel is heated with little or no oxygen to produce ‘syngas’. The latter can be used to generate energy, or as a feedstock for producing methane, chemicals, biofuels, or hydrogen.

The significant carbon and energy benefits of converting waste to energy (WtE) has seen plants established as an essential part of both the waste management and energy supply network. There are now more than 450 WtE plants in operation across Europe, with countries such as France, Germany, and Italy leading the way. Frost & Sullivan analysts predict that global revenues in WtE plants will reach $29 billion by 2016.

Harnessing energy from waste has many benefits. It helps nations reduce their dependency on energy imports, and contributes towards reducing carbon emissions and meeting renewable energy targets. Crucially, these types of technologies have a steady and controllable output – i.e. ‘baseload’ power – when used for electricity generation.

Baseload power remains a necessity given that the energy derived from renewable, such as wind and solar radiation, shows a high degree of volatility. Moreover, full integration of renewable energy sources means not only wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal power into Europe’s energy mix, but also the integration of energy supply for heating, chilling, and transportation.

Smarter cities

The need for a more sustainable approach to energy management and tighter integration is being driven by the global trend of urbanisation. In 2010 more people lived in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history, and by 2025 it is estimated that about 60 per cent of the world’s population (4.6 billion people) will live in urban areas. This poses serious challenges for city planners who will need to re-think how they provide basic city services to residents.

Municipalities across Europe are already developing district schemes to provide both heat and electricity to thousands of homes. This offers a diversity and independence of power generation rather than relying on national utilities. Known as ‘urban energy integration’, this activity is underway within metropolitan areas in Genoa and Copenhagen for example, who are looking at their overall energy management and services to integrate electricity, heat, water, and waste water at city level.

According to Frost & Sullivan, there will be 26 smart cities and 90 sustainable cities globally by 2025, presenting market opportunities worth $1.5 trillion in areas such as infrastructure development, technology integration, and energy and security services. Smart cities are cities built on ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’ solutions that will lead to the adoption of at least five of the eight following smart parameters: buildings, citizens, energy, mobility, healthcare, infrastructure, technology, and education and governance.

With smart energy the fastest growing market segment, major cities such as Hamburg, Vienna, and Amsterdam are now starting to work with the energy sector and end users to co-ordinate the energy supply issues in their area by mapping local needs and finding optimum solutions. They are developing smart grids by introducing smart meters that enable an overall improved service to their customers, and a more efficient grid operation which could eventually include the development of electric vehicle and energy storage infrastructure.

A successful rollout of electric vehicles depends on a responsive ‘smart grid’ to allow mobile charging facilities for these new modes of transport. Furthermore, the integration is cyclic: utilities manage waste collection which is then used to generate electricity, heating or chilling in combination with energy storage solutions.

Storage technologies

A viable and cost-effective energy storage mechanism would help manage the peaks and troughs of demand, and would therefore become a potential game changer in the integration of renewables. Although storage technologies are developing fast, they have yet to attain a level that would make them commercially viable.

Storing energy in the form of heat is one option that holds great potential. The concept is to store surplus electricity on a sunny or windy day by heating up water, and either storing it in that form or using it to heat or chill buildings. The latter can be achieved using thermally activated absorption chillers, adsorption chillers, or desiccant dehumidification systems.

For example; absorption chillers for example, produce chilled water by separating two different substances that are in thermal equilibrium using heat, then reuniting them through heat removal. Two substances that may be used for this process is water (acting as the refrigerant) and lithium bromide (the absorbent). This process is driven by heat from natural gas combustion or a waste-heat source. Absorption chillers can be used in conjunction with combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration projects to provide tri-generation or combined heat power and cooling (CHPC) schemes that are typically embedded close to the end user. As such, they help reduce transportation and distribution losses to improve the overall performance of the grid.

The ability to store the electricity generated by renewable energy in sufficient quantities and at a cost that makes commercial sense would open the door to an even greater penetration of renewable energy sourced power than is currently technically feasible. Much development and research is being undertaken in a variety of storage mechanisms such as lithium-ion batteries, compressed air systems, and chemical and electrical energy storage. Projects incorporating large-scale storage are starting to emerge but there remains some way to go before these technologies become widely used.

The carbon question

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) may have received a fair amount of negative press, but the fact remains it is a necessity, given that both coal- and gas-fired plants will be required for the foreseeable future to provide base-load or instant power when needed.

The European Commission sees CCS, or carbon capture and reuse (CCR), as an important tool for energy policy. In Europe, the UK has two pilot projects operating at commercial scale, while the ROAD project in the Netherlands is waiting for financing to be agreed.

As of November 2014, there were 14 CCS projects globally at the advanced planning stage, including nine in the power sector, expected to be in a position to make a final investment decision in 2015, according to the Global CCS Institute. Certainly if stricter policy on carbon emissions is enforced for coal- and gas-fired plants as expected, it is a compelling driver for Europe’s power industry to bring CCS technology to fruition.

In the renewables arena, there is now greater attention being given to operating and managing renewable energy assets more efficiently. This will be essential as the technology matures and reaches a critical mass on the grid. But while there has been a great deal of focus on renewables, it remains important for conventional power generators to continue advancing their efforts too.

Gas turbine manufacturers and operators are working closely with grid operators to make their equipment more flexible so that it is able to respond quickly to variations in demand. At the same time, distributed generation via smaller gas turbines, diesel and gas engines is going to be increasingly employed in the infrastructure – and in cities in particular. Ultimately, the emphasis will be on clean and flexible power generation, and the efficient and optimised operation of plants.

Fortunately, the energy technology sector has always responded well to challenges, whether that be developing nuclear technology, designing highly-efficient gas turbine machinery, or harnessing renewable energy. So while the current changes being brought about by Europe’s energy transition are disruptive, they also represent an opportunity to which the energy industry is responding. With policy now such an important driver for technical decisions, regulation and investment also form a key part of the debate for plant operators, decision-makers and specifiers facing tough choices about when and how to adapt, modernise and optimise Europe’s energy infrastructure as advanced technology emerges.

*About POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe

The drastic change in the power sector caused by the moves towards a decarbonised energy sector and a green society requires new approaches, new products and new skills. The POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe conference and exhibition will take place on 9th to 11th June 2015 at the Amsterdam RAI in the Netherlands. It remains the destination of choice for stakeholders to gain and exchange key insights and learning as all aspects of Europe’s energy transition come under the spotlight. Utilities, equipment producers, service providers, city energy co-ordinators, consultancy firms, financiers, data handlers and grid operators will share their experiences and knowledge, and discuss the industry’s current and future needs.

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