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Welcome to the weekly roundup from the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy.
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Clean energy around the globe

According to Lord Nicholas Stern, a low carbon future is the only path we should be following, and “any attempt to follow high-carbon growth will eventually be self destructive”. So it’s good news that green energy made up half the global net electricity capacity added in 2015. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) this provides evidence of a rapid transformation in energy, and they predict that capacity from renewables will grow faster than oil, gas, coal or nuclear power in the next five years, with China leading the world for growth in renewable power.

In South Africa wind and solar are proving to cost 40% less than new coal generation, which may provide some hope for a country that relies on fossils for 90% of their electricity.

Source: CSIR analysis of power generation cost data

In Senegal construction has begun on the 20MW Senergy 2 project, one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest solar plants. Financially backed by GreenWish Partners, a French renewable energy platform, the Senegalese state, and Green Africa Power, the solar park will provide clean energy to 160,000 people.

Mexico expects renewables to generate at least 37% of the country’s electricity by 2040 (and up to 60%) according to various scenarios from the IEA. These resources are expected to be exploited in the county’s innovative power system auctions, and take advantage of the 30-50% cost reductions for solar PV in the coming years.

India are looking to install 50MW of solar plus storage in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.The country’s largest utility, NTPC, has floated two tenders for 8MW and 17MW solar projects, with that for the storage expected later in the year. 

But uncertainty following Brexit sees the UK fall to its lowest position (14th) on an international league table of the best countries for renewable energy investment. Top of the table was the US, followed by China, India, Chile and Germany.

In Texas a new approach from Reliant Energy opens up solar energy to all customers, even those who can’t afford or don’t want to install panels. Their 100% Solar 12 Plan is a fixed-rate offering giving customers access clean energy options and potable solar power. 

But despite the push in Texas, in the broader US the solar market is being held back by the complex nature of tax equity. While this doesn’t pose a problem for those used to dealing with the system, it is increasingly alienating to new or inexperienced market entrants, providing a complicated model for the procurement of renewable energy. While it may look good financially, many find it too complicated and too risky to invest, preventing the market reaching its full potential.

Storage

While Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that variable sources of renewable energy do not threaten grid stability (2015 saw only 12.7 minutes of power outage in Germany, 41% down from 2006), demand for storage is expected to increase in South Australia after the entire state last power last month. While the general manager of ActewAGL Distribution, one network that was affected by storms, said that “the major factor is the resilience of the physical network” with storage contributions dependent on the broader system operation, behind the meter storage solutions did help some homes keep their lights on. The blackouts have certainly raised awareness of storage options, and focused the nations’ attention on the future generation mix and the policy, market, and industry implications of providing security of supply.

Wind power, contributing to 40% of South Australia’s electricity mix, did play a role in the blackout, when 9 wind farms were hit by the storm front causing an instantaneous drop of 445MW from the grid. This caused the load to shift to another interconnector that became overloaded and subsequently disconnected to avoid being damaged. The sudden loss of 900MW could not be met by the remaining generators and this caused the frequency to collapse faster than the Under-Frequency Load Shedding scheme was able to respond. While there are no network batteries deployed to date, the state aims to rolls out 36MW across 5000 homes and businesses by 2020.

However, Australia is being held back due to expensive and outdated models that are out of date and fail to take an integrated view of the opportunities storage may provide. Both Massachusetts and Texas have commissioned reports exploring economic development and market opportunities for energy storage, and examining how polices and programs could better support deployment. Both reports concluded that some quantities of storage would be economic in both markets. 

In the UK, the Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) urges the government to address regulatory barriers holding back storage  by creating a separate asset class for the technology to remove the current double charging regime for balancing (i.e. paying once when it stores energy, and again when it sells into the grid).

And beyond the benefit to the utility, companies can leverage benefits; Lockheed Martin has recently installed a 1MW battery at its facility in New York, with a goal of supporting environmental and financial solutions, as well as providing capabilities to support the state’s electricity grid. 

One of the challenges faced by renewables (to which batteries are yet proved to find a solution) is how to deal with the forthcoming seasonal peaks in demand due to the electrification of heating loads. Siemens are exploring a low-cost long-duration thermal energy storage system that combines steam turbine technology with packed-bed heat storage; excess energy is converted to hear and stored in rock fill under an insulated cover. When needed on the grid, a steam turbine converts the heat back to electricity.  

And a new material - formed by adding salt to vermiculite, the soil usually used to pot cactus and similar plants - may offer another solution. When exposed to warm air the material dries out, but on exposure to cold damp are it absorbs the water and releases heat. Researchers at Swansea are now exploring how this may be incorporated into buildings.

Consumer centric grids

Demand response offers new opportunities for end-users to engage with electricity markets in new ways, but the UK’s demand side balance reserve programme appeared to be too “blunt” and disruptive to be an attractive proposition according to Open Energi’s David Hill. The tender, which was launched in April but cancelled in August, invited users to respond to a signal and turn off load in return for payment. However, the price point was too low compared to other markets, and the need to just turn load off seemed to provide too much disruption.

On the flip side, households in Victoria, Australia, are being paid to supply energy to the grid during peak hours to meet evening surges in demand due to air-conditioning use. It aims to reward homes with solar, and encourage the installation of storage.

Microgrids are one of the hottest topics right now; as renewable energy shifts nations toward a decentralised paradigm, more microgrid projects are being realised. These are often driven by security or resiliency risks associated with key buildings, but further development is hampered by a bottleneck on the market side. However, recently formed and ongoing partnerships are aiming to support market access and technology deployment, which may serve to facilitate further growth in this space and revolutionise grid operation models in years to come. 

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