Perspectives on the energy transition – Part 3
August 3, 2022

Alex Boyd

Biases and misconceptions often surround the energy transition. In this series of articles, I’ll take a closer look at some of the conclusions reached and underrepresented facts pertaining to the energy transition to address the tension often accompanied by these conversations, making room for more balanced and constructive dialogue.

In Part 1 of this series, “The energy transition and the path to a healthy environment,” I highlighted the health benefits of increasing renewable generation that are often overlooked.

In Part 2, “The energy transition and the need for fossil fuel support,” I advocate for a cooperative and collaborative relationship between the renewables sector and fossil fuels stakeholders with an “all fuels on deck” approach.

Part 3:  Opportunities within the complexity and simplicity of the energy transition

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable power deployment must grow considerably to meet the net zero emissions by 2050 Scenario share of more than 60% of generation by 2030. That’s a 12% yearly increase from 2021-2030—nearly twice as much as in 2011-2020. To achieve this, the energy transition must remain top-of-mind for the industry, and we must take steps to address obstacles that can slow or derail progress.

The energy transition is driving many opportunities, some borne from complexity, and some borne from simplicity. But is complexity the problem, and simplicity the answer? Unfortunately, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The good news is there are opportunities in both.

The complexity and simplicity of fossil fuels

The complexity of fossil fuels is well-established in that the infrastructure required to process and burn fossil fuels is significant. From their extraction, transportation, and storage, to burning them to create explosive force in internal combustion engines or heat to generate steam to drive turbines, the process is complex. Renewables on the other hand offer the opportunity for a much simpler path between the energy source and the electricity produced.

The inherent simplicity in fossil fuel electricity generation is that the existing technology and infrastructure is in place and well understood. It also has allowed us to focus on managing supply of electricity without needing to control demand in any significant way.

The complexity and simplicity of renewables

The complexity of renewables is of course driven by their more recent emergence into a marketplace that’s long been rooted in fossil fuels. Renewables bring with them a host of new technologies (storage, DERs, etc.) that solve problems and create efficiencies—but also make the overall system more complex. Considering that DERs are still fairly nascent, when they really ramp up with EVs, home batteries, smart meters, smart appliances, etc., transmission and distribution operators – and energy markets – will need to manage the increasing complexity.

The complexity of renewables and DERs provides more options to manage supply and demand using intelligence, careful planning and technology. The opportunity exists because we now have the ability to apply technology that supports a more sophisticated power system.

Electrification can also enable simplification. Three examples:

  • Renewable generation including wind and solar is much simpler than fossil fuel generation and is fully electric with many systems no longer required including fuel extraction, processing, transportation and combustion. There is a huge existing ecosystem that is no longer required for renewables.
  • A significant user of energy, the heating and cooling of buildings, can be done more efficiently with one fuel delivery system (electricity) that powers highly integrated solutions, such as heat pumps and similar solutions. These systems move heat from one place to another. For the most part, they do not create it.
  • When it comes to moving from ICE vehicles that run on fossil fuels to BEVs, the machines themselves become simpler and more efficient. Electric motors are simpler devices with fewer moving parts than combustion engines. They also don’t have an exhaust system or a cooling system and don’t need the typical liquid fuel components, such as a fuel pump, fuel line, or fuel tank. While an improved electricity distribution network is required for BEVs, over time we will be able to eliminate the complex distribution network for fossil fuels. That BEVs become cheaper to create and maintain as critical mass is achieved seems inevitable.

The elephant in the room

Some have labeled renewables as “complex” due to their intermittent nature (i.e., the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun isn’t always shining). Others point out that because distributed renewables are often small and behind the meter, it can be difficult for grid operators to track and complicate load forecasting. And while complexity bias may play a role in this perception, we can’t simply reject renewables as being “too difficult.” Many great things created by humanity have been hard and we would be worse off today if we had simply chosen not to do them because they were difficult.

Solving the challenge of intermittency provides opportunities for optimizations. Here are some of the ways in which we can address renewable intermittency:

  • Demand-side management: Used strategically to optimize the times when electricity is used to reflect the availability of generation. It can shift flexible demand to times of high renewable production – like charging EVs at times when solar production is high and reducing during peak hours. Or creating green hydrogen when renewable generation is high and not creating it when it is not.
  • Storage: Storing excess renewable power (or buying and storing when prices are cheap) for use when renewables are temporarily low, which is another form of flexible demand.
  • Grid-forming technology: Also known as virtual synchronous generation, grid-forming technology can mimic the inertia services traditionally provided by spinning mass synchronous condensers (historically baseload fossil fuel plants) to stabilize the grid.
  • Co-location of renewable assets: In locations where the generation profile of solar and wind are complementary, co-location of these different renewables can address the intermittency issue.
  • Microgrids: These systems that can separate from the grid (island) and operate independently, can quickly respond and provide service to the grid to keep supply and demand in balance.

And while a move to green electricity offers many benefits, we still have work to do to develop adequate infrastructure to prepare the grid for widespread use of fossil fuel alternatives (electric car charging stations, transmission lines to carry electricity from new wind and solar farms, retrofits in existing buildings, etc.).

With hard work comes great results

The energy transition will drive complexity and simplicity, and both are opportunities. With the transition to renewables, the power system is going to get more complex–but this gives us many opportunities to become more creative to get to net zero.

The long-term benefits we reap from building solutions that address these opportunities will be significant. And while it may be argued that even though renewables create complexity, investments in these types of solutions offer better outcomes in the future, furthering our migration toward net zero, and greatly outweighing the human, environmental and political costs of fossil fuel dependence.

Today, we no longer have to have a “simple” power system (bulk generation then bulk transmission to major loads); we can meet our needs by embracing complexity, carefully planning, and utilizing advanced technologies to build a more modern infrastructure to support the energy transition to renewables.

In part 4 of this series, I underscore the urgency of transitioning our global energy industry for ourselves and future generations.