What does the future of power system optimisation hold for us? We talk to Wärtsilä Energy’s Exploration and scouting lead Miikka Jokinen to find out.
“I would define power system optimisation as finding the optimal path for each country as we build the power systems of the future,” says Miikka Jokinen. “The power system of the future is intelligent, flexible, sustainable, doesn’t
waste resources and is cost optimal.”
Jokinen works on new innovations and technology to help us reach a 100% renewable energy future. His job isn’t just predicting the big trends, but helping to make sure we are going in the right direction.
“Power system optimisation is about determining the best way to build and operate the system so that costs and emissions are minimised. We can do this through advanced power system modelling to understand the correct technical solutions that make
sense in the specific operating conditions of that system,” Jokinen continues. “We must understand how the existing system works in tandem with the potential future assets, without compromising reliability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness.
However, all this only creates the optimal pathway; next we have to walk that path by making the necessary investments into the solutions and smart control systems.”
Every system is unique, but there are some major trends we find everywhere. Jokinen says: “Our future energy systems will have a lot more renewable generation because it makes sense economically and environmentally.”
The growth in renewables is one of the main trends in power system optimisation. The International Energy Agency says renewables will make up a whopping 95% of the increase in global capacity through 2026, with solar photovoltaics contributing half*.
Using cheaper and more sustainable renewables is a good thing, yet they do bring their own set of challenges.
“Renewables provide power intermittently, so our power systems need to be able to balance out that intermittency. Often it makes sense to store excess renewable energy and use it later,” says Jokinen. “One of the main things I work on
is to explore new energy storage technologies, because we need better ways to store large quantities of renewable energy in the future.”
Currently lithium-ion batteries are a popular way to store energy for a few hours. However, they become prohibitively expensive if we need to store energy for a longer period of time. Dark winters and calm periods may make solar and wind unproductive
for months, for example, so the power systems of the future will need to store energy for weeks, not hours.
“There are other types of energy storage technologies which could become more cost effective for longer periods,” says Jokinen. “Two examples are metal-air and flow batteries. However, development and economies-of-scale are needed for
them to break through.”
There is an enormous amount of research being conducted in energy storage technologies. Most focus is directed towards affordable and sustainable materials, such as sodium, zinc and iron. Whatever the counterparts to the lithium-ion battery in long-duration storage will be, they will play a major role in the optimised power system.
We need to update our legislation, our regulations, our decarbonisation measures, the subsidies we pay and the entire way our energy system operates.
For the very long duration energy could be stored in other forms, such as synthetic fuels through the Power-to-X process. Here excess renewable energy is used to power water electrolysis, generating hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can be used in industrial
processes or as a fuel for mobility or power sectors.
“Hydrogen is a huge topic for the future,” Jokinen says. “But there are challenges to store hydrogen, so it might be converted into other synthetic fuels like ammonia, methanol, or methane, which are more easily stored.”
Hydrogen could be used in fuel cells or engines, for example. Wärtsilä is developing engines which will be able to run on new types of sustainable fuel like hydrogen as they become available.
The optimal energy system will probably have multiple types of renewable generation, like wind and solar, providing power intermittently. It will probably also have multiple types of energy storage, like several types of batteries and synthetic ammonia
to fuel flexible power generation. All these different pieces of the system will need to work in harmony as businesses and consumers use more or less electricity as needed. To manage such a complex system will require optimisation software.
The significance of digitalisation continues to grow in the energy industry. For instance, the Wärtsilä GEMS energy management platform monitors, controls and optimises power systems. It uses machine learning and real-time data to determine
what type of generation is needed at a specific time, such as renewables, energy storage or engines. Such software can vastly increase the efficiency of the overall power system, lowering costs and emissions.
“Complexity will increase in our future power systems, so energy management software will be increasingly important to help manage the supply and demand of energy,” Jokinen says.
The trend in power system optimisation is not only new energy technologies or software innovations. One challenge we face is what Jokinen calls “market mechanisms”.
“We need to update our legislation, our regulations, our decarbonisation measures, the subsidies we pay and the entire way our energy system operates,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense to encourage wrong behaviour. We need
a regulatory and market framework for the energy systems of the future.”
This could be considered one of the most important trends of all, because regulations and markets will help drive nearly all aspects of power system optimisation. If we have the wrong incentives, we will have the wrong results.