Power grid flexibility vital to ‘avoid blackouts’, EU’s Sefcovic says

“Given the profits of energy companies – associated with the sharp increase in prices – there is the capacity to increase the level of taxes being paid by companies in this sector and redirect part of that money to measures to cushion the impact,” Cormann said. [zlikovec / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Renewables’ integration in the electricity grid.

Batteries and hydrogen can provide the necessary flexibility for Europe’s electricity grid to avoid blackouts in an energy system increasingly dominated by intermittent wind and solar, said Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president in charge of foresight.

You can read this article also in Croatian.

“The key enabler for flexibility is digitalisation,” Šefčovič told an online event held on Monday (7 February) to mark the closure of a four-year EU research project looking into flexibility resources for the electricity grid.

The EU-SysFlex project concluded in February with a report that looks at solutions to manage an electricity system relying at least 50% on variable energy sources like wind and solar.

Based on these scenarios, the project identified the technical scarcities of the future power system, as well as the market and regulatory changes needed to support investment in so-called “System Services” providing flexibility to the grid.

“Increased flexibility will be key to adapt our electricity system further towards variable and distributed renewable electricity generation” while avoiding a costly expansion of Europe’s electricity grid, Šefčovič said at the event.

“In particular, batteries and hydrogen can be major sources of flexibility,” the commissioner added, saying: “We can also be more flexible by making better use of all the devices that are connected to the grid, such as heat pumps, car batteries or fridges”.

The EU’s focus on grid flexibility is driven by the bloc’s updated climate targets for 2030 and 2050, which were put into law last year. By the end of the decade, the EU aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990 levels and source 40% of its energy consumption from renewable energies like wind and solar.

However, those intermittent sources of electricity are also placing the power grid under unprecedented strain, making the search for flexibility a vital part of the EU’s green transition.

“Flexibility can of course be provided by storage technologies,” Šefčovič said. But there are many other solutions on offer, he added, saying their deployment at scale is “the only way to ensure in the long run sufficient flexibility in Europe’s electricity grid and avoid blackouts”.

With the electrification of heating and transport, there will be an ever-increasing number of devices connected to the grid, the commissioner remarked. Furthermore, the potential of demand side flexibility currently remains “largely untapped,” he added, referring to smart control systems that can turn off connected devices when they are not being used.

Turning to transport, Šefčovič cited “smart bi-directional charging” of electric vehicles, saying it “can support better matching of demand and supply, and offer an important tool to address local congestion on distribution grids”.

Digitalisation is the key

A common feature of all these solutions is that they rely on digital technologies. Digitalisation “enables a shift towards a multi-directional distributed energy system – one where demand sources participate actively in balancing supply at all scales,” the commissioner said.

The good news is that most of the technologies are already available. What is needed now is to bring a “sense of speed” and accelerate deployment on the market, according to Vera Silva, chief technology officer at GE Grid Solutions, who spoke at the event.

“We cannot continue operating the system as we do today,” Silva emphasised. Taking Ireland as an example, she said projections for 2030 showed that grid operations would be unstable 50% of the time if nothing is done to better synchronise electricity flows.

“There were scarcities identified half of the time. So that is a clear indication that business as usual won’t work,” she warned.

EirGrid, the Irish electricity network operator, is already capable of handling massive amounts of renewable power, with up to 96% of demand met by wind energy on 6 February this year for example.

“We’re operating a power system where, for some periods of time, we’re operating at 75% SNSP” – or non-synchronous power generation – said Liam Ryan, chief innovation and planning officer at EirGrid. “And we’re going to operate at 95% to 100% SNSP by the end of the decade,” he pointed out.

“We know we can do it,” he added however, saying Ireland will reach a stage by 2030 where on average 85% of electricity will come from non-synchronous renewable sources.

The bigger challenge, he said, will be meet electricity demand at times when there is no wind or sun.

Long-term storage is “the next hurdle we will need to overcome,” Ryan said. “And whoever comes up with that, I believe will be a multi-billionaire overnight”.

‘Winning hearts and minds’

In the meantime, the immediate challenge is to manage electricity flows in an energy system with a growing number of small-scale distributed power generation like wind and solar.

And again, most the solutions are already at hand, according to participants in the EU-SysFlex project.

“More than technology breakthrough, it’s more about the market design part,” said GE’s Vera Silva. “Because if we don’t have the right market structure, it’s difficult for the technology adopters to know when to invest and where to invest. And that creates similar delays for the technology providers. That for me is one of the biggest challenges if we want to be fit for 2030.”

Ryan agreed, saying the market needs to evolve more quickly. “Because we need long term investment signals so that the investors can drive the innovations that are needed to make it actually happen,” he said.

“Those decisions need to be taken now so that we can move into the new paradigm that we will be operating in” by the end of the decade, Ryan said.

But meeting the EU’s 2030 clean energy goals won’t be easy. Across the EU, local communities have resisted the construction of new power lines or objected to wind farms that critics say spoil pristine rural landscapes or touristic sites.

In Germany, the new government is aiming for 80% renewable power by 2030, despite local opposition to the expansion of the electricity grid and constraints with the space available to put up new wind turbines.

In France, some mayors have refused to install smart meters that are considered as the basis for the digitalisation of the power grid while fishermen have blocked the construction of new offshore wind farms.

“The big challenge is winning the hearts and minds of the communities and the citizens,” Ryan said. “We will need to build some infrastructure to make this actually happen, and therefore making sure that the communities understand that they are an integral part of the transition”.

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Bi-directional power grid

There are operational challenges as well, like the need to better coordinate network synchronisation between Distribution System Operators (DSOs) at the local level and Transmission System Operators (TSOs) who manage the electricity networks at national and international level.

The growing electrification of end uses like heating and transport “is going to require an upgrade of the grids,” with greater “controllability and observability” of end uses, said Elaine O’Connell, an EU official at the European Commission’s energy directorate.

“In particular DSOs will have to take an additional operational role” in unlocking flexibility solutions from households at the local level, she said.

GE’s Vera Silva also highlighted the need for network reinforcement but said a lot could be done by deploying digital technologies. In this respect, the EU-SysFlex project identified the necessary processes and interfaces needed to sustain a bi-directional power grid.

“Several aspects are yet to be solved” on grid modernisation aspects, Silva said, citing “interoperability requirements” between grid-connected devices, the “data models” for information exchanges, and “how these different tools and systems will interface with each other”.

“We will need to move faster on everything related to standardisation and grid codes,” she added, warning against a top-down approach to regulation whereby technology providers are told to deliver according to standards dictated by Brussels.

Such a top-down approach “will not allow us to be prepared for 2030” she warned, calling for “earlier collaboration so that we can actually deliver those solutions in time.”

New network codes

Earlier on, the EU’s Šefčovič said the European Commission had started work on an amended network code to remove regulatory barriers for the development of demand-side flexibility, saying this will enable “a shift to a multidimensional electricity system”.

O’Connell elaborated further on this. The last reform of EU electricity market rules, agreed in 2018, already supports demand-side flexibility, “but some barriers we have identified still remain and the new network code would address those,” she said, admitting that there was “still quite a lot of work” to be done there.

Some of the key areas that will be covered by the new network codes include “the definition of services and products”, “market access and aggregation”, “information and data exchange” as well as “TSO/DSO cooperation” potentially covering areas like load distribution, storage and distributed generation.

“In 2022, we will also revise the capacity allocation and congestion management guidelines” for day ahead and intraday markets, which will become more important with the further roll-out of renewables, O’Connell said.

Energy regulators at national and EU level have provided recommendations in December and the Commission will issue updates guidelines “after the summer” following a consultation with interested parties before the holiday break, she indicated.

Longer term, she said the EU agency for the cooperation of energy regulators (ACER) is examining deeper changes to the electricity market design following a request by EU leaders to examine ways of stabilising electricity prices during the ongoing energy crunch.

All speakers at the online event agreed on the need to speed up these reforms, saying time was running out fast before the EU reaches its 2030 deadline for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55%.

Liam Ryan from EirGrid emphasised that there were only about 100 months left until we reach 2030.

“Every month that we delay is one percentage point delay in meeting the target,” he said, insisting that the solutions identified in the EU-SysFlex project were all available today.

“We now need to move and implement that,” Ryan stressed.

EY consultant: Europe is lagging behind in power grid digitalisation

The volume of solar panels and electric cars connected to the grid is still manageable for now. But massive new load expected from electric vehicles in the coming years will require stepping up network digitalisation, warns Serge Colle.

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