The road to renewable electricity depends on power grids
Decarbonising the energy system means transitioning to renewable power to meet our energy needs – including for industry, transportation and the heating and cooling of buildings. Fortunately, over the past decade, it has become more economical to invest in new wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power sources than building new carbon-intensive power plants. From Denmark to Honduras, more and more countries are expanding the amount of their energy generation coming from wind and solar. This boom in renewable power is a step in the right direction to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, one major stumbling block in making a complete transition to renewables is the delivery system for electricity: the grid.
A greater demand for electricity requires both renewable sources and a stronger delivery system.
Power grids support an increasing demand for renewable electricity
Already, a network of millions of small and large power stations provide electricity for our needs – our homes, public transport systems, private vehicles and industries. However, electrifying heating, the transport sector and industrial processes more fully will require a massive expansion of existing grids. For example, electrifying the transport sector alone – which now mostly relies on oil – will double the current demand for electricity. Similar projections have been made for electrifying how we heat our buildings. Expanding the grid will make electrification of energy-intensive energy uses a realistic possibility.
Strong connections between renewable power supply stations and areas of high energy demand is necessary to account for weather-related fluctuations in energy supply. By integrating different energy sources and different geographic/weather zones, the grid can smooth out variable electricity generation. In this way, a well-designed power grid network is the most cost-effective way to harness energy surpluses (in very sunny and windy locations) and fill in gaps (in cloudy areas or those without wind). The power grid of the future must be able to deliver energy where it is needed, and when. A properly developed grid will be key to run an electricity system with a very high percent of electricity coming from wind and solar power.
It is challenging to generate electricity for an entire urban area within a city’s limits, so power grids will also need to be able to transport electricity from areas with good solar and wind resources to those with high demand for energy, like cities and industrial areas. As renewable energy is cheaper to produce far from residential and urban spaces, a strong grid that can transport electricity long distances is essential.
Grids also have the potential to transform socioeconomic environments – for example, a well-designed network can create jobs and income in rural communities. Communities that generate their own renewable energy may want to sell surplus power to areas where there is a high energy demand.
How does grid expansion happen?
The future will see an increase in the demand for electricity for the transport sector, as cars, trucks, buses and trains become electric and need to be charged. There will also be a higher demand for highly efficient residential buildings and the electrification of heating. Finally, some industry sectors will foreseeably be electrified as well.
Predicting and planning how and where this electricity will be generated is fundamental in the grid development process. If the energy system planners do not account for the use of renewable energy in their predictions or fail to incorporate a drastic increase in demand for electricity in their plans, the grid will not be able to support a clean energy transition. These future predictions, and the plans developed to meet those future energy needs, are called scenarios. Scenarios aim to describe a future based on agreed policy objectives (such as a shift to 100% renewable energy), which then helps to identify what actions must happen now to achieve the desired future outcome. Australia, China, Costa Rica and Germany are all currently in different stages to develop integrated energy system plans based on energy scenarios.
Currently, governments and large energy companies exclusively manage the grid planning and building process. In most cases, civil society is not consulted about power grid projects. Without their input, there is a serious risk that grid expansion plans will not sufficiently prioritize environmental and climate goals, crucial to a clean energy future.
Given the complicated nature of planning the architecture of the grid, acquiring the necessary permits and constructing various elements of an energy grid, grid expansion in most places remains a very slow and long-term process. However, in order to reach a meaningful emissions reduction target by 2050, we need to expand power grids now.
To ensure that governments and energy companies prioritize grid expansion for a clean energy future, civil society must get engaged with grid planning, scenario development and environmental assessment and approval. Participation across the entire value chain is fundamental for society to understand measures and accept the costs of developing the grid infrastructure, which is needed for a climate neutral energy system.
How is civil society currently engaged in these grid-expansion processes?
The processes for developing scenarios and grid plans are as diverse as the countries implementing them. The European planning process (Ten Year Network Development Plan – TYNDP) involves civil society, academia, renewable energy players and the energy industry. In contrast, the grid expansion plan in Japan does not involve civil society but works with a small committee of around 20 people mainly from the grid companies itself, government representatives and academia.
In all cases, the involvement of a diversity of actors is vital for a transparent planning process and to increase public acceptance of highly visible elements of an expanded grid that relies on renewable energy power sources. For more information and case studies on civic involvement in grid planning processes around the world, see the forthcoming report Planning the Grid to Paris, available in November 2020 on the PAC project website.
What you can do:
Civil society can influence grid planning decisions, whether from a desire for clean air or to push for climate action. And whether you are in charge of an international non-profit or a volunteer at the local library, your input is needed to shape grid developments.
- Get involved in your local grid planning processes by attending meetings, writing letters and engaging with the coordinators.
- Discuss with local and national politicians on how to improve public engagement both in grid planning and on the value of grid development for a clean energy transition.
- Seek out local climate and environmental groups and encourage them to get involved in grid planning.
- Share this article with your network and the decision-makers listed above.
With the support of the PAC Consortium, REN21 organised two nearly identical sessions on Tuesday 3 November 2020. Please visit our event page to download the speakers’ presentations, view recordings of the two sessions and download the outreach document you can use when you contact decision makers.
There is now a case study report that the PAC consortium has published with further details on how citizens can be involved in scenario planning and grid development. Learn more about the Citizen Power for Grids Report.
For more information, contact REN21 at email@example.com.