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Flexibility providers needed to keep energy transition decarbonised and affordable

Image: National Grid.

Image: National Grid.

Energy storage, electric vehicles, demand response and interconnectors will be needed to provide the flexibility required for the energy transition to take hold by reducing the need for fossil-fuelled backup.

That is the finding of a new report from BloombergNEF (BNEF) in partnership with Eaton and Statkraft, which modelled a range of future power systems in the UK depending on how each flexibility technology might develop in the coming years.

None of the scenarios expect the rise in low carbon power and renewables, owing to a continued decline in costs in solar and wind technologies, with over 90% of generation being zero carbon in 2040.

The report argues that a lack of flexibility from the its four central forms would have ‘a real cost’; namely that a more expensive, over-built system with high curtailment would form, reliant on fossil fuel plants for backup that produce over a third more emissions than in the NEO base case.

This base level sees a 4% increase in demand by 2040, but with smart electric vehicle charging shifting this to the middle of the day to match solar generation. Meanwhile, the UK adds 14GW of distributed capacity - made up of rooftop solar, behind-the-meter batteries, and demand response – while utility scale PV and wind reach 72GW and 68GW respectively, with the former being matched with batteries to offer flexible power.

However, on top of battery storage, the report suggests that smart electric vehicle charging can provide flexibility by moving large volumes of renewable energy to periods of high demand, or moving demand to periods of high renewable generation.

Meanwhile ‘dispatchable demand response’ reduces the need for fossil-fired backup plants in the power system, reducing emissions, while interconnectors to Nordic hydro could address periods of both excess supply and excess demand.

Without these technologies to optimise the generation capacity of the UK’s renewable assets, the system will be “oversized and wasteful”, making it 13% more expensive by 2040 and with 36% higher emissions.

Cyrille Brisson, Eaton’s vice president of sales and marketing for the EMEA region, said: “The relentless advance of solar and wind energy technologies are driving us inexorably towards an electricity system dominated by variable renewable power generation. Combined with the expected growth in electric mobility, we are now in the midst of an energy transition which will massively lower carbon emissions and improve air quality.

“However, this opportunity will be appreciably limited unless energy markets are designed and regulated in a way that unlocks the full value of flexibility in the electric system.”

The findings echo those from a number of other reports in recent months which have sought to outline the role and value of flexibility in the future energy system. Aurora Energy Research concluded last month that the evolution of the power market will create £6 billion of investment opportunity for battery storage and other flexible and distributed generation assets by 2030.

The energy market consultancy, working with Eaton, also claimed there to be a £6 billion opportunity to 2040 owing to the need for millions of electric vehicle chargers at workplaces, shops and motorway services.

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