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The future of renewable energy

Software will be increasingly important to manage renewable power into energy systems

A decade ago, coal and nuclear were the main sources of power, supplemented by gas when grids required extra capacity. Today, all three of these industries remain manual. In many cases, a human presses a physical button for the factory to start. It is a slow process.

Since then, renewable energy has increasingly taken market share. While renewables are more technologically advanced forms of power generation, they are ones which could not be controlled to the same extent as coal, nuclear and gas.

Now we have an issue; grids are at capacity during peak times. In August 2019, the UK experienced one of its worst ever blackouts and the grid is set to come under greater stress. The country that has a climate change led target to produce 30pc of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. To manage this transition, the grid needs to digitise and embrace software.

Grid management

If we are serious about energy systems hitting climate change targets, software will be required to ensure that scaled use of renewable energy is managed into the system. Likewise, if we are serious about scaling up renewable energy in a cost-efficient manner it will require software. In the UK, c.£1bn per annum is used to balance the grid when there is over or undersupply. For a sustainable future this figure needs to decrease—and can only decrease when software is correctly deployed.

When grids hit peak capacity, response times to get the supply of renewable power up and running is between six minutes to several hours. This will need to fall dramatically as fluctuations in power output happen in real-time.

“In order to efficiently scale renewable energy, value creation will start to move from power generation to the way in which it is managed and delivered to the consumer”

At Arenko, we can ramp up to full power in 0.5 seconds. During the UK blackout we ramped up our grid balancing mechanism in one minute and held it for six minutes. Importantly, we ramped it back down steadily as the grid’s power returned to avoid oversupply from the heavy power stations that were then reaching full power output. Arenko did this in a fully automated way, providing flexibility and control to balance the system’s imbalances. Grids globally need to be able to adjust this rapidly.

In order to efficiently scale renewable energy, value creation will start to move from power generation to the way in which it is managed and delivered to the consumer. Renewables needs independent, entrepreneurial and imaginative technology companies to manage the volatility of renewable energy and ensure the grid is maintained.

Rupert Newland, chief executive of Arenko

Transition story

Underpinning the transition to renewable and ‘cleaner’ energy remains the traditional energy generators. They continue to play a vital role in grid management and will continue to do so in the medium term.

Globally, energy demand will rise from c.60,000TWh per year to c.120,000TWh per year by 2050 and although renewables will be part of the energy mix, current wind and solar technologies will be not sufficient to meet more than 15-25pc of 2050’s total aggregate energy demand—so fossil fuels will still be needed. Therefore, the software adopted to support grids must understand this is a transition story.

Integrity is the key word in the transition debate. Integrity from governments in setting realistic targets and hitting them. Integrity from the power generation firms that they are committed to renewables and ensuring a steady handover from hydrocarbons. And, integrity from the software businesses that they act in the interests of grids globally.

We are entering the most interesting phase of Western power markets in 50 years. Energy transition creates opportunities, unlocking multi-billion-dollar sub-industries for the 2020s. This, coupled with the growing awareness of climate change, will push firms to adapt with technology leading the way. I am confident that the drive is there to hit renewable energy targets and I believe that companies will offer the technological solutions to ensure stable grids globally during this period of energy transition.

Rupert Newland is the chief executive of Arenko, a software company that automates batteries to store and offload renewable power to electricity grids with the purpose of accelerating the transition to a flexible, sustainable and resilient energy system.

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