The transition to renewable energy is being prioritized to fight climate change. But unless there is a strong transmission grid to move the electrons to where they are needed, achieving net zero emissions will not be possible.
By Tim Holt, Executive Board Member, Siemens Energy
Energy demand is increasing worldwide. Especially for renewables, as countries work to reduce their carbon footprint, provide an affordable energy supply and strive for energy security. Technologies such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric, provide power to homes, businesses, and entire societies across the world. The latest data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that achieving net zero emissions requires electricity production to rise 92% on 2020 levels by 2030 – only seven years away. While it is more critical than ever to increase the number of these projects, can the current grid handle renewables? The energy transition can only be a success, if the appropriate infrastructure is in place: a strong transmission grid.
More concretely, today’s grid isn’t fit for tomorrow’s purpose. This means we need to expand and modernize our transmission grids. If not, renewable energy cannot reach its full potential. One could see power generation as the heart of the energy system - and a reliable and efficient transmission and distribution grid as the arteries and veins. It moves the electrons generated to where it's needed, when it's needed, meaning supply and demand can be balanced.
Overall, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates that 152 million kilometers of power lines are needed for the world to reach net zero by 2050. That’s double the length of today’s transmission grid – and long enough to reach the sun! This puts into context how important investment into the grid is and why without it, achieving net zero emissions will not be possible.
Global energy transition: Innovative grid technologies on the rise
The good news is, an accelerated and sustainable energy transition is driving demand globally for resilient grid technologies and renewable energy storage: for example, the EU wants to add 128 gigawatts of new interconnector capacity by 2040, high voltage grid capacity in China will double by 2050, and more than 35 percent of grid assets in the US will be replaced by 2040.
One of the key technologies driving the development of a strong transmission grid is high-voltage direct current (HVDC). HVDC allows for the efficient transmission of electricity over long distances with lower losses than traditional alternating current (AC) transmission lines. This technology has already been deployed in several large-scale projects around the world. For example, the Sunrise Wind project off the New York coast will be the first offshore wind project in the United States (U.S.) to use our Siemens Energy HVDC technology for their wind power transmission connection.
Interconnectors are another critical technology that can help to enable a sustainable energy transition, by sharing renewable energy resources across borders. For example, in our NeuConnect project, we will connect two of Europe’s largest energy markets, Germany and the UK, via a high-voltage line under the North Sea. This will enable enough power for 1.5 million households to be transferred between the two countries.
And, as the power grid moves to more decentralized power generation, such as renewables, additional technology is needed to balance load and manage fluctuations in the power frequency – such as with synchronous condensers. Australia was an early adopter of this technology: The South Australian grid operator ElectraNet has more than 50 percent renewable energies in its transmission grid. This poses a major challenge for grid stability, as the sun does not shine 24 hours and the wind doesn’t blow constantly either. To avoid the risk of blackout, ElectraNet has now equipped its Robertstown substation with two synchronous condensers with flywheels, which help to instantaneously bridge sudden frequency drops.
Reduce bureaucracy to speed up the green energy transition
Although these are good developments, to really make headway in the transition to renewable energy, obstacles need to be removed. First and foremost: Decisions need to be faster. We really need to reduce complexity in the planning and approval processes.
The IEA puts the average lead time to approve and construct an overhead transmission line at 10 years and for a subsea cable, around nine years, in the U.S and Europe. And recent research by the Federation of German Industries, the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), has warned that the number of approvals needed for new renewable generation projects could double in the next eight years.
Therefore, we need simpler and faster approvals both for transmission grid upgrades as well as for investments in new electrical grids to eliminate bottlenecks and strengthen the infrastructure.
Oil and gas energy transition plus the grid can solve the energy trilemma
Renewables don't just combat climate change. They also increase energy security by reducing dependence on fossil fuels. A well-designed transmission grid can reduce electricity prices by enabling the integration of lower-cost energy resources, such as renewables, into the grid. This can help lower overall energy costs for consumers and businesses. And, by efficiently delivering electricity from renewable energy, it can help reduce carbon emissions and support the green energy transition.
If we continue our current path, global emissions will rise from 34 gigatons per year today to 53 gigatons by 2050. This would worsen global warming – and threaten our planet. That’s why there is no alternative to the renewable energy transition, and to a sustainable, affordable and reliable energy system supported by a strong transmission grid. Only by meeting the world’s net zero targets can we create a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.
About the author: Tim Holt is Executive Board Member and Executive Vice President Grid Technologies for Siemens Energy, one of the world’s leading energy technology companies. The company works with its customers and partners on energy systems for the future, thus supporting the transition to a more sustainable world.
Combined picture and video credits: Siemens Energy