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Flexible power generation: Key to a green recovery

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, power consumption has dropped in Europe. At the same time, the share of solar and wind energy in use has risen to unprecedented levels. 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, power consumption has dropped in Europe. At the same time, the share of solar and wind energy in use has risen to unprecedented levels. 

As European countries seek to rejuvenate their economies in light of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission is taking the opportunity to encourage the expansion of green energy sources. The European Commission plans to allocate large sums of money to grants and loans for rooftop solar panels, insulation, and renewable heating systems and is including loans to projects for renewable energy and green hydrogen in its coronavirus recovery plan. Under the Commission proposal, the EU will tender 15GW of renewable energy capacity in the next two years, with expected investment of 25 billion euros.

“The European Commission recovery plan is an important announcement,” says Pekka Tolonen, Director, Europe, Wärtsilä Energy. “It signals the EU’s desire to push through a recovery from the pandemic in the greenest way possible.”

 Tolonen thinks the plan is a great opportunity to build future-proof power systems that work now and far in the future as well as a way to support a quick economic recovery that also encourages sustainability. 

“The growing role of renewables in the plan is very positive of course,” he says.

However, because wind and solar are intermittent sources of energy, he underlines the challenge to guarantee the supply of electricity to industries, households, hospitals, and others in reliable and cost-efficient manner. 

“We must guarantee the availability of power at a competitive price and high reliability also when the winds are calm or the sky is cloudy and also at night,” Tolonen says.

Understanding the impact

As the coronavirus began to spread across the world this spring, Tolonen and his colleagues realised that power consumption would drop systematically as countries went into lockdown. This increased the relative share of wind and solar energy to levels they had expected to see only perhaps 10 years in the future.

Realising the unique nature of this situation, Wärtsilä team developed the Wärtsilä Energy Transition Lab, a tool that gathers real power market data from European countries to illustrate and understand the impact of Covid-19 and understand how energy systems that incorporate high levels of renewable energy sources work.

“This tool is updated every week, and it provides relevant data on power generation, interconnections and market prices for European Union countries and the UK. With this tool, one can understand how the power systems could operate in the future with higher share of renewables, which can help to focus energy policies and investments,” Tolonen explains. “When supply and demand are in imbalance, the price for renewable energy sources drops below zero. These negative price spikes lead to disturbances in the market. You get a dysfunctional system unless you have flexible power generation sources.”

Need for flexibility

Before the pandemic, this kind of imbalance was less frequent, but after March, it became a regular occurrence in countries like France, the UK and Germany, where there is a combination of large amounts of renewables and an inflexible baseload. This means that these countries dump electricity to neighbouring countries via interconnections and pay to do so, which is a far-from-ideal scenario.

“We expected to see such a volatile situation in something like 10 years from now, but because of the overall decrease in demand, the relative share of renewables has jumped higher. So, today we see what the future will look like,” Tolonen says. “Flexibility is the key. When you increase the share of renewables, intermittency increases, and you also need to increase the flexible assets in the system so that it can adapt in both the short and long term.”

For short term needs, within the same day, energy storage is an increasingly interesting option. For longer periods, however, a different solution is needed. Tolonen says that flexible engine power plants are ideally suited for this. They are a competitive solution for today’s power systems, and they are able to run on currently available fuels, such as LNG. They will be able to accommodate biofuels or synthetic fuels as they come on the market without need for additional infrastructure investments, which makes them future-proof.

Many European countries are investing in flexible engine power plants, but more needs to be done to accelerate the transition towards a renewable energy future, in Tolonen’s opinion.

Green hydrogen

In addition to boosting mainstream renewable power technologies like wind and solar, the European Commission is betting on more innovative solutions to help reduce carbon emissions on the continent. As part of the EU recovery plan, a EUR 10 billion fund will offer loans to projects for renewable energy and clean hydrogen. Clean or green hydrogen, a zero-carbon fuel produced using renewable power, is crucial for the Commission’s target to decarbonise the EU economy by 2050. Wärtsilä is researching and testing the use of hydrogen as a fuel. 

Wärtsilä is also doing research into Power-to-X, which captures CO2 from the air to be used as a raw material for synthetic, carbon-neutral fuels. This technology also has great growth potential with the expansion of renewable energy. When renewable sources are providing power beyond what the system requires, the excess electricity can be used in the production of synthetic fuels.

“There is no doubt that the share of renewables will grow in the future,” Tolonen says. “The big question is: what do you do in addition to that? I’m convinced that flexible technologies have a key role in this.” 

Written by
Thessa Lageman