Robert Hall

Decarbonisation and the demand for electricity

Robert Hall, Executive Director of Resilience First discusses tech for decarbonisation.

As we strive increasingly for lower carbon emissions by, in part, moving away from the burning of fossil fuels, the demand for green energy production will increase. Solar, hydro and wind (and, to a lesser degree, nuclear) power generation will need to increase at an even faster rate than current plans if we are to power our electric vehicles, electric heat pumps and the myriad of electronic devices while achieving the ambitious net-zero targets set by government.

These and other questions were addressed in a whitepaper recently released by Resilience First, titled ‘Decarbonisation and the role of technology’. A compendium of articles looked at how different sectors are tackling decarbonisation by a range of techniques such as adaptation, energy efficiency, renewables and carbon capture. The energy sector, and the importance of energy sustainability, is a key element of the report.

Electricity is like water. Without it, our complex society would very rapidly grind to a halt. In fact, water would not gush from our taps and wastewater would soon back up. What is more, our mobile phones would stop working, our roads would clog up without functioning traffic lights, hospitals would have to stop operating, and schools would be forced to close. The interdependent consequences of a prolonged break in the continuous flow of electricity are immense and disturbing.

A small illustration of some of the consequences were revealed on 9 August 2019 when a 45-minute break in electricity supply affected more than a million people in the UK. Thankfully, such interruptions are rare in this country.

When reflecting on the continuous supply of electricity, three factors come into play. Reliability, resilience, and sustainability each play a different role and have separate consequences.

Reliability is the ability to deliver electricity in the quantity and with the quality demanded by users on a continuous basis. It means that lights are always on in a consistent manner, and any minor interruption is quickly resolved. In the UK, reliability has increased in recent years, with previous power interruptions of 52 minutes declining to 26 minutes on average in some areas.

Resilience, on the other hand, is an electricity system’s ability to withstand shocks such as storms and cyberattacks, and come back online after a major outage and adapt as a result. Here, resilience has decreased as more demands are placed by society. The time for restoration in the UK has declined from 24-48 hours in the 1990s to up to seven days currently.

As we transition away from traditional, centralised generation and become increasingly reliant on new technologies associated with weather-dependent generation, we not only make the power system less resilient to large or coincident multiple losses of generators but also make it much more difficult to restart the system should a nationwide shutdown occur.

Sustainability, the third leg of the triad, is the ability to meet present electricity needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability helps businesses take concrete steps to help people, the planet and profit. Renewable, carbon-neutral power sources confer such sustainability but have, for the above reasons, some downsides in terms of resilience. Furthermore, managing the network in the short-to-medium term has become a real-time challenge through balancing renewable energy sources with traditional ones.

While we strive for solutions that confer net-zero carbon targets, they are but one element in the whole sustainability equation. Businesses should start by applying a net-zero approach to all aspects of sustainability. Starting with decarbonisation is great but it should just be the start. Packaging, product, water and waste are just as worthy of our attention.

The pressure on organisations to prioritise sustainability is growing from all angles. The drive is a step change from the days when cost alone was the primary consideration. If we are to achieve sustainability, we will need to have a good grasp of usage, think long term, and prioritise our plans.

To reap the full benefit of combining reliability, resilience and sustainability, the relationship needs, first and foremost, to be both understood and appreciated. The benefit of combining all three is now more pertinent than ever as we emerge from Covid-19 and adapt our routine activities, our electricity demands and meet our net-zero targets.

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