Renewable energy: The world needs a big change

Our energy systems are in the foothills of a revolution that will change the way we do business and the way we live, even those of us not working in the energy sector. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff renewable expert Barny Evans says the Middle East is likely to experience this more than most.

We are moving to a future where the majority of our power comes from renewable sources and our transport and buildings become fully electrified; but we are also moving to a future where supply and demand become blurred, with self-generation growing. For most regions, this will have many benefits: less need to import oil and gas, better air quality, much lower CO2 emissions, reduced energy bills and the creation of intelligent networks that are much more efficient. For the Middle East, with high levels of solar power available, the benefits may be even greater, but there will also be the challenge of the fact that demand for oil and gas is likely to fall greatly.

Solar power is already in a position where it is cost-effective to deploy per unit of power produced against fossil fuel options, but solar and other intermittent renewables have for too long acted like irresponsible teenagers, taking credit for producing power whenever they want but not taking responsibility for the fact that our power networks are not like bank accounts where you can just pay in how much power you need over the year; they are actually like see-saws, where you balance supply and demand minute by minute and too much power supply is as much a problem as too much demand.

In most countries, the level of deployment to date means we can get away with largely ignoring the problem. That is becoming untenable. Germany already is dealing with some of the problems around this, and some other jurisdictions are suggesting that intermittent renewables should pay for the additional costs of maintaining stand-by generation and balancing costs.

Against this backdrop, power storage is like a white knight on a shining steed galloping to the rescue. Power storage means that renewable power produced when we don’t need it can be held, to be used later when we do need it. Essentially, it allows a system to become more like a bank account and less like a see-saw, though balancing demand and supply is still important.

In Britain and countries in similar latitudes, solar power, even with power storage, is unlikely to provide more than around 10% of power for the foreseeable future, but as you approach the equator and the days and seasons become more uniform, solar power linked to storage – and demand management – could provide 80-90% of a country’s power. We have already undertaken an analysis for a development in tropical Africa where solar and power storage was considered as an option against standard diesel generators, and the lifetime costs are already similar. A particular opportunity for the Middle East lies in the fact that power demand is broadly proportional to solar power generation, which reduces the need for storage.

The parallels between power storage and solar power are obvious, be that batteries, flywheels, compressed air, hydrogen or whatever. Today, power storage is very expensive and not really deployable on a grid scale. You could have said the same about solar power as little as ten years ago. Like solar, the level of human and financial capital being invested in power storage is enormous, and the potential for economies of scale, narrowing of focus on winning technology, standardisation and governments putting in place the incentives and structures to allow it are just as big.

This new future requires enormous levels of investment and engineering, but it will happen. There is still some denial; for example, the most recent OPEC report on the future of oil suggests that in 2040 electric vehicles will represent only 6% of the global fleet, which seems unlikely, with the IEA projecting around 30%. Oil consumption in vehicles is likely to start to decline more rapidly than that, and of course at the same time there will be a resulting rise in electrical consumption. The UAE and other Gulf countries in particular will need to plan for this, as they will be affected by both declining oil demand and increased electrical demand.

In summary, the future is incredibly exciting, but companies like WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff need to ensure we are preparing our clients – be they governments or other companies – for the challenges ahead, to ensure we fully grasp the benefits.

Barny Evans is Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development Expert at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in the UK.

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