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The Four 'C's of the Energy Transition: Carbon, Capacity, Cost and Co-Operation.

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John Armstrong's picture
Chief Operating Officer BPA

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry – giving him a front-row seat on the energy roller-coaster. He began his career constructing oil...

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  • Mar 26, 2020
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In case you’d missed it – the energy transition is massive – in my recent blog on the future of energy I discussed how wildly wrong our predictions can be and just how much of a roller coaster the sector is on. When looking at the energy transition I believe there are four lenses through which to make energy decisions. We are moving from linear decision making in an age of energy abundance into a multi-angled challenge which constantly evolves over time….

Carbon Intensity - Whats my Carbon Footprint?

‘Carbon intensity is a complex challenge which is not only hard to nail down in the moment - but is even more difficult when you project into the future.’

Energy problems need input and outputs. In the case of electricity, the carbon intensity of those inputs can change each half hour, never mind five years in the future. Since 1990 the carbon intensity (average!) has fallen by 38% and continued to reduce in all future energy scenarios I’ve seen. I do think a lot of these scenarios tend to understate the impact of a huge shift to electrification and the capability of renewable sources to respond to rapidly escalating demand.

That said gas networks have their own plan for reducing the carbon intensity of the gas in the pipes… through bio-methane and hydrogen mixing so the future may not be all electric.

Needing to look both near and far away.

Capacity – Can I get to the energy I need?

Even if we can get an abundance of low carbon energy (i.e. Hydrogen or Electricity) the next challenge comes in getting it to the point of use.

There are not insubstantial challenges with local and national grid capacity in a number of energy scenarios. These directly impact both individuals and companies seeking to make energy decisions.

At the residential level everyone on a street quite simply can’t have a 20kw fast car charger and if companies quickly electrify their fleets the grid connections to provide even overnight charging will be phenomenal.

‘If you thought getting the electric to charge a potential twenty-five million electric vehicles was challenging then heat makes that look like a piece of cake’

Heating UK homes at peak requires about 360GW (for comparison current ‘peak’ is about 50GW) of instantaneous energy for heating…. Any shift to electrification of heating will massively increase demand on both national and local grids. Even hydrogen may not present the perfect solution – ‘Green’ Hydrogen uses electricity to generate it and huge volumes of storage would be required to enable enough to be there on super cold days.

plenty of gas capacity here!

Cost – How much will it cost me?

Carbon and Capacity both come at a cost. Resilient, zero carbon options don’t always come cheaply! With so many alternative options, delivering lowest instantaneous and lifetime cost presents a complex and diverse challenge.

Geography is also likely to become far more important. With Hydrogen deploying locally and grid re-enforcement relying on substantial infrastructure investment it may simply be that where you live or where a company is situated even at a parish level in the UK could influence the cost of energy. A little like for the two million off gas grid properties in the UK, who currently have no choice but to opt for more costly LPG, we could see differences depending on Hydrogen availability or even local electricity grid capacity.

Cooperation - How can I make this happen?

‘The answer to the Carbon, Cost and Capacity conundrum is in Cooperation’

Finally, and most importantly the answer to the above three challenges is in cooperation. We simply must look to our neighbours to optimise. There are plenty of fantastic examples out there… we are just going to have to work harder and thin differently to get there!

  • Whole system planning and local energy systems across zones – enabling capacity to be managed at a more local level.
  • Using neighbours waste heat (Data Centres, Sewage, Air Con) to optimise performance of heat pumps provides a fantastic win-win for Carbon, Cost and Capacity.
  • Understanding local demands on networks - such as electric vehicle charging prior to requesting giant grid connections – i.e. do neighbors charge their vans over night to enable delivery enabling their capacity to be used during the day for office workers.
  • Shared storage through heat networks enabling reduced demands on the system and energy sharing.

Cooperation increases the number of no-regrets decisions. Energy saving and energy sharing typically always makes sense… and finding ways to limit demand (and peak capacity requirements) reduces cost for everyone.

This type of thinking takes an unprecedented level of coordination at the local, regional and national level. Success comes in a constant open dialogue about future and current needs – and also maybe giving up a little control for the greater good! The ultimate technology split is still a long way from being decided but what is clear is that Carbon, Capacity, Cost and Co-Operation are the cornerstones of any decision making around energy systems.

cooperation matters

 

Balloon Photos by Nick Fewingsian dooleyMar Cerdeira & Ridwan Meah  on Unsplash

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 26, 2020

This type of thinking takes an unprecedented level of coordination at the local, regional and national level. Success comes in a constant open dialogue about future and current needs – and also maybe giving up a little control for the greater good!

I definitely agree with this, but it also seems to be perhaps optimistic to think that this idea will pervade the people/organizations it needs to in order to become a reality. Are there any regions of the world that you think are setting a good example in this regard, perhaps a roadmap others should follow?

John Armstrong's picture
John Armstrong on Mar 27, 2020

Great point Matt.

I think you hit the nail in the head with the need to cooperate needing to go deep into organisations.

malmo in Sweden is a great example...

I think once low carbon infrastructure is in that helps... the  people can get what they need to do. That's why governments need to subsidise some of the upfront low carbon infrastructure costs... like low temperature grids etc.

 

Hans De Keulenaer's picture
Hans De Keulenaer on Mar 28, 2020

Thanks for this sensible article John. I always like a good 4C concept when I see one but you missed a fifth C: Copper. Sorry for the self-serving comment :-).

Now seriously, cooperation in energy matters is of paramount importance, and regulation can take us only that far. That's why I believe that energy management systems are very promising to bridge the gap between efficient products and efficient systems. Energy consumption is the result of how systems are designed, installed, commissioned, operated, maintained and decommissioned. Rather than regulating what to do, we need nudging to do the right thing.

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