Italy’s energy system basks in the sun

Italy’s energy system basks in the sun

Italy is greatly expanding renewable power generation, but this calls for a significant redesign in its power system. Wärtsilä’s power system modelling can be a critical tool to maximise renewables, lower emissions, save money and take another step towards a 100% renewable energy future.

Text: David J. Cord Photo: 123RF

Less than 20 years ago, Italy’s centralised power system was behind the curve in adapting new technology. Today, however, it is committing to a 100% renewable energy future.

Baseload in Italy is primarily generated by gas turbines. The country has no nuclear power plants and only a few coal-fired power plants. It has a large hydroelectric sector and was an early believer in wind and geothermal power. The use of solar power increased dramatically over the past decade and will continue to grow.

“Italy already has an advanced energy system with about 30% of electricity currently coming from renewables,” says Jan Andersson, Senior Analyst, Market Development, Wärtsilä Energy Business. “They have even more ambitious targets for the future.”

Big goals and big challenges

Italy’s National Energy and Climate Plan calls for an increase in the share of renewables in total energy consumption to 30% by 2030. The plan is to triple solar energy and double wind energy. Energy efficiency targets aim to reduce consumption by 1.5% annually. Simultaneously, CO2 emissions will be cut by a third compared to 2005 levels and coal-fired power plants will be phased out by 2025.

“There are major challenges, both in installing this huge amount of new capacity as well as handling the intermittent nature of wind and solar,” Andersson says. “We need to introduce new solutions as well as utilise the assets that are already there through upgrades and conversions to make the system more flexible.”

Wind and solar generate power intermittently, but the demand for electricity has no relationship to when it is generated. Increasing flexibility in the energy system would give utilities the ability to quickly and efficiently switch from one source of power to another, as needed, in order to ensure grid reliability and stability. Italy already has some flexible generating capacity with hydropower plants, but these depend upon hydrological conditions, and it isn’t viable to greatly expand hydropower. The country plans to develop 5 GW of energy storage capacity, but this alone will not provide the flexibility needed. 

Strength in flexibility

Italy’s power system recently was the subject of a study by Wärtsilä’s PLEXOS power system modelling. This tool has been used to analyse and optimise more than 60 power systems worldwide. The power system modelling aims to understand the operation and fundamentals of power systems and quantify system level benefits of different power plants to find an optimal capacity mix with optimised system total cost. It creates a model for power plants, transmission systems, power reserves and the local energy market, then studies various different scenarios to determine the optimal way forward for the specific country or region. 

Marco Golinelli, Senior Manager, Business Development, Wärtsilä Energy Business, has worked in sunny Italy’s energy industry for many years and is excited to study his country’s power system.

“Early results show that inserting flexibility into the system can have both environmental and economic benefits. Carbon dioxide emissions go down, while the system saves about EUR 400 million annually,” Golinelli says.

In Italy, preliminary results show the need for 5–7 GW of additional flexible gas-fired power generation capacity after the expansion of renewables and addition of energy storage capacity. New flexible gas generation capacity would optimise the entire Italian power system, which would also benefit baseload gas turbine generators by reducing cyclic operation.

“Wärtsilä technologies  can  support Italy in its transition  towards a 100% renewable energy future,” Golinelli says. “We are able to provide solutions that will form the core of the future energy system – flexible and efficient gas engines and energy storage as well as energy management systems to optimise the various power generation assets.”

The power system modelling results are only in the preliminary stage, and Golinelli says the next phase is ongoing. Final numbers may change a bit, but it seems certain that the need for flexibility will only increase over time as more renewable energy sources are added to the power mix.

“When I joined Wärtsilä in 2001 the Italian energy system was centralised, but now it is much more distributed and flexible,” Golinelli says. “Everyone knows we will need more flexibility in the future.”

Ingenious solutions for a 100% renewable energy future

A move towards a more efficient and flexible energy system requires some ingenious ideas. For example, one possible solution is the use of combined heat and power (CHP) generation. A CHP plant generates electricity, but also  heat to be used to warm homes and businesses. It can also have other benefits. 

“We can also add more flexibility with the cogeneration of heat and power in the same way as conventional gas engine plants. With heat storage, electricity and heat generation can be decoupled,” Golinelli explains. “This increases efficiencies, provides district heating and contributes to balancing the market.”

Wärtsilä has already began CHP solutions in Germany, with KMW in the Mainz-Wiesbaden area and DREWAG in Dresden. The fast starting and stopping capabilities of Wärtsilä engines add flexibility to the energy system and can achieve total efficiencies as high as 90%. An added benefit of CHP plants is that heat can be stored to be used later.

Italy is aware of how difficult it will be to integrate so many new renewable energy plants and stabilise a grid with intermittent power, but  is prepared to take bold steps to secure  its future energy systems. Wärtsilä understands, designs, builds and serves optimal power systems for future generations and can support Italy in building an optimal path to their ambitious energy and climate targets.

“It is not easy, but we are working hard to achieve a 100% renewable energy future,” Golinelli says. “Grazie to our teams of dedicated professionals who help our customers achieve their goals and serve the people of our marvelous country.”

 

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