Big Science Needs Broad Collaboration – What About Big Energy?

Closer international collaboration on the transformation of the energy system is indicated.
Published: Thu 11 Feb 2016

The energy transition is upon us as we move to a renewables based, decentralized energy model with ubiquitously connected users. Every country in the world is being impacted, whether it at the level of providing electrification where there is none to modernizing ageing infrastructure, building out distributed generation or bringing prosumers into the mix.

This transition will be lengthy over decades, and it is also costly, with figures well into the trillions commonly quoted.

Smart grid developments – led by the more than US$4.5 billion ARRA funds in the US and the more than €5 billion investments in Europe – have paved the way for the next phase of grid development. The US DOE Quadrennial Energy Review and the recently released Multi-Year Program Plan set out the next steps for the US. [Engerati-Modernizing The Power Grid] In Europe these are defined in the ETP SmartGrids Strategic Research Agenda 2035 and its Work Programme updates (the last dated April 2015).

These plans have required significant effort to put together but there doesn’t seem to have been any overlap in terms of cooperation between these two global leaders, let alone with any other countries or regions.

Common grid challenges

With common challenges facing utilities and national energy sectors more generally, is there not potential for greater collaboration between countries and regions on the execution of a global grid development roadmap? With resources, both human and financial, limited, these would be better optimized along with greater sharing and implementation of the emerging knowledge.

Several international grid organizations exist that have a cooperative role. ISGAN, the International Energy Agency (IEA) Implementing Agreement for a Co-operative Programme on Smart Grids (originally the International Smart Grid Action Network) is a governmental level body primarily for knowledge sharing. The Global Smart Grid Federation (GSGF) is a collaborative of national smart grid organizations.

Potentially one of these take on a ‘central’ grid R&D facilitation and support role. In practice, however, such an organization would likely need to be a public-private partnership to ensure both the political and financial credibility. A potential model is the Catapults in the UK, which are aimed to accelerate the commercialization of innovation in key national industries. In the energy sector these include offshore renewables and energy systems. [Engerati-Energy Systems To Get Catapulted and Offshore Renewables – From Innovation To Commercialization]

Big science collaboration

Large-scale research collaborations across multiple countries have worked successfully, although these have tended to occur mainly with major projects that are beyond the scope of any particular one. For example in nuclear physics CERN, today one of the most highly respected research organizations of its kind, predates the modern European Union. A current example is the ITER nuclear fusion facility, which is being developed in the south of France by a consortium of 35 nations. [Engerati-Nuclear Energy Advances]

The cross-border smart grid projects there have been, particularly in Europe, have demonstrated that projects at this level are both viable and productive. An organization such as is proposed wouldn’t negate the need for continuing local R&D at national level, any more than CERN has for nuclear physics. Indeed with the differing regulatory and market conditions, the local activities would be essential.

An international body would build a global network of grid development expertise, much like the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium is in the US. This could only benefit the industry in general and ultimately with the common goal of the COP 21 Paris Agreement, our world itself.