EU research looks into large-scale integration of renewables

“The next phase of penetration of renewable energies in Ireland and across Europe…is not only coming from a more distributed source, it is much more dispersed across borders, localities, communities," says John Lowry, Project Director at the Irish transmission system operator EirGrid [Håkan Dahlström / Flickr]

EDF and EirGrid, the leading French and Irish energy companies, have won €20 million under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to develop ways of integrating large amounts of intermittent renewable energy sources into the electricity grid.

The EU-SysFlex project, launched in November, aims to prepare the electricity system for coping with a renewable energy penetration rate of more than 50%.

Similar projects “have shown the technical possibilities, but haven’t addressed scaling up to a pan-European vision,” said John Lowry, Project Director at the Irish transmission system operator EirGrid, which coordinates the research.

“This is the uniqueness of the project,” he told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Going above 50%

European lawmakers are currently debating a European Commission proposal to update the Renewable Energy Directive. On 28 November, The European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) voted to set the 2030 target at 35% of the EU’s energy consumption, up from the 27% initially proposed by the Commission.

And the EU executive is now also having second thoughts. Given the “impressive fall” in prices, “we have additional arguments to also discuss the figure of 30%,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice-president responsible for the Energy Union.

Sefcovic says 30% renewables target ‘affordable’ for 2030

The “impressive fall” in renewable energy prices has persuaded the European Commission to update its long-term energy projections for 2030, said Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s Vice President in charge of the Energy Union.

The 27% target was described as “lacking ambition” by six European energy companies, including EDP of Portugal, which also participates in EU-SysFlex. In a joint statement in early November, the six companies backed a 35% target “to be achieved through electrification of transport and heating sectors, together with redesigned electricity market fit for renewables.”

According to the EU projections, a renewables rate of 30 or 35% of total energy consumption would translate into a share in the electricity mix above 50%.

Creating a stable power system

But while the large-scale integration of wind and solar brings many rewards in terms of delivering on the EU’s decarbonisation goals, it also creates challenges for grid stability, Lowry explained.

“There are additional complexities and challenges for Europe. The dynamic is shifting, with the trend towards distributed sources of electricity embedded further down the grid chain, the electrification of heat and transport, diversification of technology, consumer engagement and consumer choice. While presenting a significant opportunity, this is all adding to the complexity of operating networks,” said Lowry.

“We plan for the EU-SysFlex project to address many of these operational challenges,” he claimed.

EU-SysFlex aims to develop a roadmap to help create a flexible and integrated pan-European system which will maximise the potential for renewable integration. The technical work already started in early November.

“One issue is variability – you need to have other resources when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Another issue is the short-term variability of solar and wind energy – we need more flexibility. Finally, there is the issue of a very different technical interface with the system based on power electronics,” said Vera Silva, the research programme director at Electricité de France (EDF), the utility that will act as technical coordinator of the research project.

“In EU-SysFlex, we are looking at the range of system services that will be needed in the future to provide flexibility and that will keep the system balanced at all times,” Silva explained.

Avoiding asset redundancy

A recent analysis by consulting firm Artelys for the European Climate Foundation found that the EU could confidently opt for a 61% share of electricity generated from renewable sources by 2030.

But that assumes an explosion in the number of small-scale generators, such as households placing solar panels on their rooftops.

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The rapid fall in costs of wind and solar power, combined with flexible demand technology, could replace “more than half” of coal and gas-powered electricity in Europe by 2030, according to new research published on Tuesday (21 November).

“We are going from less than two thousand to millions of generators in different parts of the pan-European system,” said Silva of EDF, warning that “if we try to solve the problem just by using centralised resources, we will end up with a lot of asset redundancy.”

“We want to have the cost-effective transition by finding ways to coordinate resources in place rather than by investing and duplicating,” she explained, saying the EU-SysFlex project will explore flexibility solutions like storage, demand-response and cross-border trade and services.

A wind farm, for example, can provide not only energy but also services to help keep the system stable, according to Silva. “But you need to design complex control systems and install complementary assets to take advantage of their capability. And at the moment, such asset owners cannot invest in changing the control systems unless they have quite a clear view of what would be expected from them and how they can be remunerated.”

Multi-dimensional project

Lowry of EirGrid believes “the next phase of penetration of renewable energies in Ireland and across Europe…is not only coming from a more distributed source, it is much more dispersed across borders, localities, communities.”

This is why EU-SysFlex’s demonstration portfolio is large, ranging from transmission to distribution level,” Silva explained, saying this “will allow us to understand the link between services, system and market layers and data flows.”

The EU-Sysflex consortium has 34 members including transmission and distribution system operators, generation, system-service and technology providers as well as manufacturers, universities and research centres.

The consortium will work on the “multi-dimensional project” for four years, the EirGrid Project Director said. “We intend on identifying the pan European technical shortfalls and develop solutions to address this need. We will then undertake a review from a market and regulatory perspective.”

According to Lowry, this could also translate into commercial opportunities. “Ultimately, we are trying to develop a roadmap across technical, market, regulatory and data management factors, and to test them in a real-world scenario.”

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A representative group

The project won €20.3 million in funding from Horizon 2020, the total budget being €26.5 million.

Demonstrations are planned in many different countries. A test taking place in Germany, Italy and Finland, led by Innogy, aims to demonstrate flexibility services at the distribution level. The demo coordinated by EDP in Portugal will work on both transmission and distribution levels and look at the coordination between centralised storage and renewable energy flexibility.

In France, EDF will demonstrate the use of aggregators to coordinate different services and resources. In Estonia, a demo by Elering will focus on cross-border and cross-sector data management with neighbouring Latvia and Poland.

A transmission system operator in Poland – known for its high share of coal in power production – is also participating in EU-SysFlex, as well as a technology provider from Norway.

In total, the consortium covers 15 countries. “Every country is not represented in EU-SysFlex. But what we have is representative of the various system and sectoral needs,” Lowry explained, saying “EU-SysFlex will make a major contribution to the European transformational project in meeting our 2030 renewable targets and beyond”.