Energy Systems Integration Challenges Future

Integration of new technologies, products and services is key to the energy system of tomorrow.
Published: Tue 17 Nov 2015

Energy systems integration is a new buzz phrase that one can expect to hear a lot more about in the future. Integration of different energy sources from solar to gas at various scales from residential to utility and across different sectors from heat to transport all needs to occur with smart infrastructure as the energy system becomes more decentralized and distributed.

“Energy systems integration is a big, complex area,” Jenny Hogan, Director of Policy at Scottish Renewables, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “It involves legal, regulatory, financial and technical issues.”

This is echoed by Nick Winser, Chairman of the UK Energy Systems Catapult: “Today’s energy system has been made to work through decades of evolution leading to having roughly the right size network. We are now moving rapidly towards an entirely different energy system and the industry is struggling to get a handle on how all the technologies are going to come together and create a seamless energy system such as we have today.”

In September Scottish Renewables hosted the final conference of the European North Sea Energy Alliance (ENSEA), with a focus on the ENSEA project and specifically energy systems integration more generally. ENSEA is an EU-funded project that was set up with participants from Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway to advance energy system integration across the North Sea area. [The North Sea – A Global Energy Hotspot]

Broadening the energy systems integration debate

Ms Hogan says that a good deal of work on energy systems integration has been done at the research level and the aim with the event was to broaden the debate especially among practitioners such as utilities and the private sector and to obtain a consensus view on priorities and how to move forward as well as on some potential projects.

“In Scotland for example, we are seeing a lot of interest in how to integrate electricity, gas, heat and transport locally. Scotland is a cold country with high heat demand, and although we are doing quite well in decarbonizing electricity we aren’t doing so well on heat. We might be able to use the gas network more cleanly.”

A document pulling together all the findings from the workshops and discussions is currently being drafted by Scottish Renewables. Pending its publication Engerati sought insight from a number of the participants.

Energy systems integration issues

Catrinus Jepma, Professor of Energy and Sustainability at University of Groningen and Energy Delta Institute, who summarized the first day’s proceedings at the event in what he says was a “mission impossible” given the number of issues arising, says there is a lot of confusion about the concept of energy systems integration. “Some people think having a smart meter or a fuel cell in a home is system integration, whereas others say that it has to involve collaboration between sectors such as gas and wind for example across the whole North Sea area.

“Then there is the debate between the roles of state versus the markets. Some say that if you leave it to the market, players will collaborate and systems will integrate, but others say doing this will lead to insecurities of supply as the players won’t do it if they are not rewarded. These are important issues for policy makers to sort out and they need dialogue between organizations. In theory the benefits of integration are clear, but to organize it is a major job.”

Leading energy systems integration

This then raises the question of who should take the lead in energy systems integration and while some feel the European Commission (EC) should in Europe at least, few feel it will. More likely country or regional governments, or in some cases individual companies or organizations, will take the lead in project development.

“It is clear that we need to take responsibility to do things as a region,” says Ms Hogan of Scotland, and in turn “that organizations like Scottish Renewables need to be pushing governments to act. Governments have lots of ideas but don’t know necessarily how to take them forward.”

Lessons from other regions

Ben Kroposki, Director of Energy Systems Integration at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), points to the opportunity to learn from other markets. For example, he says the US can learn from the high distributed generation penetration in Europe, while Europe could learn from the US experience of increasing use of natural gas for power generation and use of market mechanisms to incentivize demand response.

“The US and European energy systems are quite different and lots of lessons can be learned from their experiences. In the US we are more focussed on cooling and transportation whereas in Europe there is a focus on heating, but we face similar challenges in getting the technologies to work together in an optimized system. We are also starting to try to figure out how consumers can actively participate in the energy markets.”

Technology to the forefront

Mr Winser comments on “the immense amount of fascinating development going on in terms of individual technologies,” which he says points to the need for “agile new actors” to bring all these together and to work with the players in the market. Here he expects the newly formed Energy Systems Catapult in the UK, in supporting the development and commercialization of new products and services, to play a role. [Energy Systems To Get Catapulted]

“We aim to provide a focal point for energy system integration issues,” he says. “Talking about for example the impact of electric vehicle charging on the grid, and whether it is done in the home or on the street, may sound trivial but it could have an immense effect on the energy system of the future.”

The importance of such work cannot be underestimated. “We have done enough research to know that we can readily get to 20% renewables penetration in the grid and the variability can be handled but going higher becomes harder and harder without taking a fully integrated systems approach,” says Dr Kroposki. “We are seeing in island systems such as Hawaii the need to look at advanced functionalities and integrated systems and these will be fundamental with moves to 100% renewable energy.”

He also recommends that the International Energy Agency (IEA) sets up a task force to stimulate dialogue and information sharing on energy system integration at both research and deployment levels.

In conclusion Ms Hogan says it is hoped the event and the outcome document will inspire further dialogue and development of energy systems integration. “ENSEA is about knowledge sharing and we need to make sure we continue learning from each other nationally and across geographic regions.”