Power grid interconnections and system flexibility are key to integrate bigger shares of renewables. A Franco-Irish research project aims to produce a roadmap to deploy EU power grids that can handle more than 50% of electricity from intermittent renewable sources.
Ireland’s power system is today able to cope with up to 65% of electricity coming from renewables like wind and solar – an expertise Dublin believes can be replicated on a larger scale across Europe.
But to achieve that, more interconnections and flexibility solutions are needed – including demand-side management and storage technology, said participants at a EURACTIV event in the European Parliament earlier this month.
“In 2030, half of our electricity in the EU can be renewable. How can we integrate such a high level of electricity to the system?” asked Seán Kelly, an Irish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), who hosted the Parliament event.
The Irish MEP leads the EPP position on the EU’s renewable energy directive, which is currently being negotiated in three-way talks among EU legislators – the European Commission, Parliament and Council.
Led by Ireland’s EirGrid and France’s EDF, the Franco-Irish research project “will propose a roadmap” on how to get there, said Kelly, referring to the EU-SysFlex project, which is co-funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme.
And the relevance of the project will only grow if the European Union raises its level of ambition on renewables. The Irish MEP said he was “pleased” that the European Parliament backed a 35% target for renewables in 2030, up from the 27% initially proposed by the European Commission.
“This level of ambition was not easy for many of my colleagues to accept,” admitted Kelly, who is the EPP shadow rapporteur on the revised Renewable Energy Directive.
Denis Naughten, the Irish energy minister, who also spoke at the event, boasted that Ireland has been “at the vanguard of the energy transition”, saying the Irish grid was now able to cope with up to 65% of electricity coming from renewable sources, mostly wind.
“Operating a small system with this share of renewables is a truly great achievement. What would have been deemed unimaginable a few years ago, is today a reality,” Naughten said.
“EU-SysFlex will help us deal with challenges related to putting in practice the CleanEnergy Package,” he added, referring to ongoing EU negotiations on the revised Renewable Energy Directive.
Interconnections: “a huge issue”
The need for interconnection and flexibility arises from bold policy choices Ireland has made. By 2020, the island plans to phase out coal entirely and deploy half a million electric vehicles on the road, Naugthen said. “We will also electrify heat and invest in energy efficiency,” the Irish minister said.
But Dublin also wants to improve energy security and solidarity with the rest of Europe and is supporting two electricity interconnection projects, with the United Kingdom and France, in order to achieve that.
“For Ireland, as well as for France, Spain and Portugal, interconnections are a huge issue for getting the balance right,” the minister explained.
Catharina Sikow-Magny, a senior official at the European Commission’s energy directorate, said the rapid drop in the cost of renewable energy technologies has changed perceptions about green electricity inside the EU executive.
“We welcome European Parliament’s vote of 35%,” Sikow-Magny said at the event, echoing earlier statements by the EU Commissioner in charge of energy and climate action, Miguel Arias Cañete, who is now openly pushing for raising the EU’s level of ambition on renewables.
Grid operators play a key role in managing electricity flows and their importance will only grow as higher shares of renewables come into the system. But consumers too can play a part in stabilising the system, Sikow-Magny said.
“We rely on energy flexibility in the system via integration of electric vehicles and smart homes,” the EU official explained. “We have to make sure consumers have their voice in the system,” she insisted, saying “they must be better informed and vulnerable consumers better protected.”
Seven demonstration projects
Speaking at the event, Northern Ireland’s transmission system operator, SONI, explained how the tightly interconnected power systems on the two sides of the divided island had eased pressure on electricity wholesale prices.
Robin McCormick, SONI’s general manager, said EU-SysFlex will be able to draw from that experience, involving 34 organisations from 15 countries, including TSOs and DSOs, technology companies and research institutes. “Seven demonstration projects are based on all system levels in a number of European countries,” McCormick explained.
Vera Paiva da Silva also works on EU-SysFlex, as programme director at EDF R&D. “The energy transition means changing from the well-known system with a moderate complexity to a system with a high level of complexity and properties that are yet to be known. This is the challenge EUSysFlex is picking up,” said da Silva.
It will require putting in place the right economic incentives, she pointed out. “We need rewarding the right level of flexibility at the right time,” she explained, saying flexibility can be found across borders and at all levels – including from electric vehicles and smart homes.
“EUSysFlex is here so that we can say: 50% of electricity from renewables in a decade – yes, we can,” da Silva said.