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

There’s plenty of reasons to be positive about wind and solar, especially with many regions operating power systems with more renewables than previously thought possible. In fact, Aaron Bloom at NREL believes that getting to 30% is no big deal, at least from a technical perspective, due to the abundance of the resources and their declining costs (solar has fallen over 80% since 2009 and wind could fall by 30% by 2030). On top of this, it’s theoretically possible that a system with 30% wind and solar could be reliably operated across the US, and in practice many places are already operating systems with this much renewable resource. The key question is then how to go above the 30%.

One option could be to build large scale solar in the desert in addition to the emphasis on rooftop installations. Another could be to bring solar and wind together. Hybridising the technologies in single projects could help take advantage of the power generating strengths of each. In Australia construction is about to begin on a 10MW solar farm adjacent to 73 wind turbines, which will provide more continuous generation than either technology working alone. And in microgrid systems this can help cut battery costs too.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of renewables, the UK is seeing some of its efforts taking a wrong direction with the rise of diesel farms in the UK. As National Grid gears up for its annual capacity market auction, diesel generators are amongst those vying to take part. The auction process has created lucrative opportunities for investment in diesel farms, with many already having been built and delivering returns under previous auctions. But the noisy and polluting generators need not be the answer, and there are moves underway to change the policies that make diesel farms such an attractive option.

And despite the big push for rooftop solar in Australia, the country is blowing its carbon budget, having emitted twice its allowance under the Climate Change Authority’s carbon budget since 2013; if it continues along this path it will have used up its entire allowance by 2031. Perhaps the Australian Renewable Energy Agency signing of its first funding agreement for 12 large-scale solar projects couldn’t have come too soon. 

In Thailand two companies - PS&S and Mahindra - are constructing a 1MW solar plant using various combinations of technologies, all using separate SCADA systems, in order to compare performance. This will help to set up a learning centre and advisory board in the region with the aim of supporting further solar development, conducting courses on engineering, operation and construction, with plans to also facilitate installer training for rooftop systems.

Renewables in business

Demand for renewable energy is rising among US companies; a report from the Advanced Energy Economy found that 71 Fortune 100 companies have renewable energy or sustainability targets (up from 60 just 2 years ago).

And over 160 UK based NGOs, public institutions and businesses have announced their support for solar and are urging chancellor Philip Hammond to intervene over a rise in business rates for commercial solar system.

However, a recent survey has found a major disparity over attitudes toward sustainability between large and small firms. Only a third of SMEs viewed environmental issues as important compared to 74% of larger businesses, and while half the employees in larger enterprises agreed that sustainability is worthwhile even if it costs more, just 18% of employees in SMEs agreed. Similarly, 77% of large enterprises are committed to a programme of action, compared to 42% of SMEs.

One major enterprise - Google - plans to run entirely on renewable energy in 2017, buying enough wind and solar to power its entire operations, which used 5.7TWh of electricity in 2015, almost half of what the city of San Francisco used during the same period. 

IKEA have halved their carbon emissions due to increased use of renewables, alongside energy efficiency initiatives and reductions in waste. Nestle has plans for 32 rooftop solar systems across its factories in China. And LinkedIn has opened its first net zero energy building at its Sunnyvale campus. The building, renovated from an old concrete building erected in the 1970’s, has 778 solar panels to power its energy needs including light, heat, cooling, appliances, and 16 electric vehicle charging stations.


Corporate investment in energy storage has reached an all time high, with disclosed venture funding and project finance totalling US$660 million in Q3 2016. And according to GTM Research’s director of energy storage “growth in project financing, especially in the residential segment, is a harbinger for further strengthening of deployment business models.”

Following a two-year trial in the UK, grid scale batteries have shown potential to transform the grid and play a major role in the transition to a low carbon economy. The battery, designed and managed by UK Power Networks, stores enough electricity to power 6000 homes for 1.5 hours at peak times. Amongst other things, the trail has drawn attention to the evolution needed in the UK’s regulatory framework to allow storage to exploit its full potential.

In the US, San Diego Gas and Electric are installing two storage projects, totalling 37.5MW/150MWh, with the larger of the two (at 120MWh) expected to be the single biggest grid connected lithium ion battery. The project, commissioned in August and expected to be completed in January 2017 is one of a number of deployments occurring at unprecedented speed, driven in part by the shortage of natural gas in the region following the Aliso Canyon leak earlier in the year

After Tesla's acquisition of Germany’s Grohmann, the company are finding themselves some European competition, as five battery and EV gigafactories are set to be build on the continent. In addition to Tesla’s planned European gigafactory, the coming years will see plants opening from BMZ, LG Chem, Samsung SDI, and SGF Energy. Currently the Tesla Powerwall 2, at 14kWh capacity (compared to 6kWh for the original model), could take between 6 and 9 years to pay off, but perhaps the increased production and competition will see prices drop even further.

Beyond batteries, the global flywheel storage market is expected to take off, hitting US$477 million by 2024, proving much needed frequency regulation for key technology applications such as data centres, where reliable power supply is crucial to operations. And French utility EDF together with Germany storage company STORNETIC are embarking on a project to advance the position of flywheel technology to meet grid storage needs.

Smarter grids

Centrica, working with Western Power Distribution, National Grid, and the University of Exeter, are launching a £19 million pilot project to develop a virtual market place for over 150 homes and businesses in Cornwall. The trial, which aims to explore how battery storage, flexible demand and generation can reduce pressure on the grid and support future decarbonisation, will will offer new technology, such as storage and micro-combined heat and power systems to selected residents and business. Central will connect these customers as well as local renewable generators into their online marketplace to enable the sale of capacity to the grid and wholesale energy market at times of increased or decreased demand. 

And according to a new report from Arup, written for the 23rd World Energy Congress, city-based measures, including concepts of transactive energy and its flexible and equitable distribution of production and consumption, are crucial to deliver holistic and community based solutions for the future of energy.

Local approaches such as these are not just of benefit in developed nations either. In India’s Himalaya’s, microgrids making use of solar and storage are bringing safe, reliable and affordable energy to remote mountain villages and communities. Global Himalayan Expeditions are working with local communities to create 15 electrified mountain home-stays, which are benefiting both residents and trekkers in the region, increasing tourism earnings by $24,000, and reducing reliance on kerosene by 63 tonnes annually (and saving 157 tonnes of carbon emissions). 

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