Renewables: ‘hitting the accelerator’

7 min read

As investment in renewables accelerates a number challenges still remain to be overcome before they are able to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2021 was a record year for renewables with around 290GW of new renewable energy generation capacity, mostly in the form of wind turbines and solar panels, installed around the world.  These figures suggest that renewable energy generating capacity could be on course to exceed that of fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined by 2026.

Expectations around renewable energy have changed drastically in the past few years, with COP 26, the on-going gas crisis in Europe and now Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine all helping to focus minds on terms of our reliance on fossil fuels.

“If the world is going to stick by the vision outlined in the Glasgow Climate Pact and limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5C, then it will need the tools to do so – and that means increasingly investing in renewable power generation,” said Chris Hayhurst, a Consulting Manager for MathWorks in Europe and APAC.

However, while climate and energy policies in many countries have helped to drive growth, this level of growth is only about half that required to meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

According to Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, “This year’s record renewable energy additions are yet another sign that a new global energy economy is emerging. High commodity and energy prices pose new challenges for the renewable industry, but elevated fossil fuel prices also make renewables even more competitive.”

According to the IEA, renewables are expected to account for about 95% of the increase in global power-generation capacity from now to the end of 2026, with solar power alone providing about half of that increase.

Total global lobal investment was $755 billion in 2021 driven by climate ambition and policy action from countries around the world, according to Energy Transition Investment Trends 2022, a research report from BloombergNEF (BNEF), with investment in renewable energy, energy storage, electrified transport, electrified heat, nuclear, hydrogen and sustainable materials all increasing - only carbon capture and storage (CCS) recorded a dip in investment.

Here in the UK, the rollout of low-cost renewable energy is to be accelerated and the Government has ramped up auctions for its flagship renewables scheme to boost investment and jobs.

The Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, the UK’s primary method of supporting renewable energy, aims to drive down the cost of new technologies while unlocking £90 billion of private investment by 2030.

It has already helped to reduce the cost of offshore wind by around 65% over the past decade and the UK is now one of the world’s largest generators of wind power.

In the last allocation round, 12 new contracts were awarded, with the potential for nearly 6 GW of further capacity.

By increasing the frequency of these auctions more projects will be able to enter the system, helping to scale-up the UK’s supply of renewable energy and to support the country’s long-term energy security.

Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said, “We are hitting the accelerator on domestic electricity production to boost energy security, attract private investment and create jobs in our industrial heartlands.

“The more clean, cheap and secure power we generate at home, the less exposed we will be to expensive gas prices set by international markets.”

Dan McGrail, Chief Executive of RenewableUK said, that by moving to annual CfD auctions it would significantly accelerate the transition to net zero. 

According to McGrain there's a huge appetite among renewable energy developers to invest in building more projects.

"We need build up to 4 gigawatts of new offshore wind capacity every year to stay on track for net zero, which means quadrupling our current annual rate. Similar increases in onshore wind, solar and other clean power sources are vital too, as well as ramping up the roll-out of innovative technologies like floating wind, green hydrogen and marine power".

Simulation

To facilitate the expansion of the renewables space, an accurate model of how renewables can contribute to power needs is vital and to do that, there’s a need for reliable and robust simulations that can model the whole of the renewable energy lifecycle and inform the design of renewable power sources and what their adoption means for the people reliant on them.

“Simulation lends itself to the particular issues that renewables present,” explains Hayhurst. “Many renewable energy sources are by nature variable, so how can you plan ahead to bring renewable power into the grid? There needs to be detailed and technical simulations of this variable production, as well as a simulation of how these devices are integrated within larger power grids and deal with fluctuations in demand.”

Simulation, according to Hayhurst, needs to integrate all these elements and provide a dynamic and complete picture of the entire energy flow, from power source to consumption.

“By doing so it’ll go a long way to ensuring we can maximize the potential of renewables,” he adds.

MathWorks has invested heavily in multi-domain simulation capability enabling the electrical simulation of the grid and energy demand all the way down to the physical modelling of how wind turbines turn and generate.

“We can connect the whole renewable energy flow in a single, multi-faceted simulation,” Hayhurst says. “This is necessary to replicate the dynamism of possible situations and provide a robust simulation environment. Let’s say wind isn’t blowing and power generation in the overall network is low. With a single simulation, we can find out what will happen to the frequency of the National Grid. From that moment, we can plan a response – how much power are we going to have to pull in from another source, for example, via high voltage DC link from another country?

“By providing a comprehensive multi-domain simulation we can help firms plan the capacity they need in a system to keep it stable.”

MathWorks worked, for example, with utility provider Hydro-Québec to provide a simulation solution to their challenge of integrating wind farms into the grid.

By using tools such as MATLAB and Simulink, they were able to model both individual turbines and entire wind farms, generate code from the models, and run the entire simulation through their multiprocessor environment.

“With this multi-domain approach, Hydro-Québec was able to conduct large-scale power systems studies, including the interaction between series compensation and wind farms,” explains Hayhurst.

The dependability of systems

The dependability of renewable systems has always been an issue for critics, but a recent study by the University of California suggests that most of the current electricity demand in advanced nations can be met by a combination of wind and solar power – although it did warn that extra efforts were going to be necessary to completely satisfy requirements.

Most reliable systems, which are dominated by wind power, are capable of meeting electricity requirements in the countries studied 72 to 91 percent of the time, even without energy storage, according to the research. However, with the addition of 12 hours of energy storage capacity, systems become dominated by solar power and can satisfy demand up to 94 percent of the time.

“Wind and solar could meet more than 80 percent of demand in many places without crazy amounts of storage or excess generating capacity, which is the critical point,” said co-author Steve Davis, UCI professor of Earth system science. “But depending on the country, there may be many multi-day periods throughout the year when some demand will need to be met by energy storage and other non-fossil energy sources in a zero-carbon future.”

“Historic data show that countries that are farther from the equator can occasionally experience periods called ‘dark doldrums’ during which there is very limited solar and wind power availability,” explained Dan Tong, assistant professor of Earth system science at Tsinghua University.

Among the approaches the researchers suggested to alleviate this problem would be to build up generating capacity exceeding annual demand, developing long-term storage capabilities and pooling resources of multiple nations on a continental land mass.

Research from Wärtsila, an energy innovator, found that the UK, for example, has the 13th greatest need for agile flexible solutions in the G20, in large part because of its high potential to meet demand with wind energy, generating over 67% of the UK's demand.

According to Pekka Tolonen, energy business director at Wärtsilä Energy, “Power systems with high levels of renewables need a significant amount of flexibility, through energy storage and gas balancing technology, to achieve the transition to 100% renewable energy future.”

Wärtsilä has developed a new grid balancing technology, capable of ramping up to 10MW+ in two minutes, which it said would help utilities deliver a low cost, 100% renewable energy future.

Here in the UK, the UK Government has just awarded almost £7m to UK projects that are developing innovative energy storage technologies, in the first round of a government-backed competition.

24 projects have been awarded the first round of funding through the ‘Longer Duration Energy Storage competition’, which is worth £68m in total.

These projects will look to develop new energy storage technologies that can utilise stored energy as heat, electricity or as a low-carbon energy carrier like hydrogen.

Ranging from the development of thermal batteries to converting energy to hydrogen, they were selected because of their potential to improve technology performance and reduce the cost of meeting net zero.

According to the Government, successful projects will benefit from a greater tranche of funding from a second phase of the competition, which will support these projects towards commercialisation.

Commenting Energy & Climate Change Minister Greg Hands said, “Driving forward energy storage technologies will be vital in our transition towards cheap, clean and secure renewable energy, and will allow us to extract the full benefit from our home-grown renewable energy sources, drive down costs and end our reliance on volatile and expensive fossil fuels. Through this competition we aim to make this ambition a reality.”

The challenge of renewables

Renewable energy engineers must be able to work across different scales and timescales to provide a strong foundation for the wider renewable industry. Not only do engineers need to work out the minutiae of matching grid frequencies, with timescales in milliseconds, but power plant models must accurately simulate day, month, and year-long production cycles.

“If engineers can’t accurately peg the price of energy to sell to providers, and unless renewable energy providers know that they’ll make a profit on the energy they provide, we’ll see investment in the technology drop and those COP 26 targets get further away,” suggests Hayhurst.

As the technological march towards net-zero continues, so does the regulatory landscape underpinning that change. Companies need to be quick to adjust their strategies to match this.

The climate crisis is now undeniable and, by extension, the need to move towards a sustainable future is paramount. Through the creation of a robust, dynamic, and cost-effective testing environment, simulation and multi-domain simulation is making it easier than ever to plan the capabilities of renewable power plants, how they can best work, and how they can be integrated into national grid systems.

Simulation is helping to facilitate the move to net-zero, and if the world is to reach it by 2050, it’s not a minute too soon.