The vision of a low carbon economy with greatly reduced carbon emissions aimed to put a brake on global temperature increase and climate change is by now a familiar one, especially in the energy sector as the major potential contributor to decarbonisation.
The big question, however, is what the sector will need to look like in order to achieve that goal, currently targetted by COP 21 for 2050, which in turn dictates potential pathways towards it. Not surprisingly, with the rapid pace of technological and digital advancement and the need to move earlier rather than later in a fast shrinking timeline, these issues are coming under considerable attention in the sector.
For example, in Europe the transmission and distribution system organisations are constantly refining and updating their forward plans, as are individual companies such as system operator National Grid in the UK.
Now the European Technology and Innovation Platform for Smart Networks for the Energy Transition (ETIP SNET) has set out its vision for 2050. So far ETIP SNET, which is responsible for guiding energy research in Europe with wide stakeholder input, has focussed on the shorter term including a research and innovation roadmap to 2026. This new vison paves the way to extend the research requirements and priorities out well beyond that date.
“In this document, the ETIP SNET stakeholders present their vision of a longer time horizon with a particular focus on low-carbon energy systems’ integration needs for all involved users,” says ETIP SNET Chairman Nikos Hatziargyriou in a foreword.
As a foresight to the focus of the document, Hatziargyriou, who is Chairman and CEO of Greece’s distribution network operator HEDNO, continues: “European citizens are central actors in the transition from the present single-carrier, fossil-based energy systems towards an integrated, low-carbon, secure, reliable, resilient, accessible, cost-efficient and market-based energy system by the year 2050. This system will pave the way for a fully CO2 neutral and circular economy, while maintaining and extending global European industrial leadership in energy systems during the energy transition.”
2050 energy vision
The ETIP SNET vision essentially presents the widely held view of the energy system of 2050 as a highly integrated ‘system of systems’.
The report articulates this as comprising four inter-connected and inter-related layers. The market layer allows for exchanges between market players; the communication layer supports the vertical and horizontal integration of energy systems and the relaying of information with the market; the physical layer consists of automated energy infrastructures; and the digital infrastructure layer supports network operations to manage the integrated energy systems with higher levels of automation.
In order to develop these layers, various ‘building blocks’ are anticipated. The efficient organisation of energy systems envisages cooperation between system operators, high levels of automation, and application of the subsidiarity principle, i.e that actions are handled at the lowest practical level.
For markets to become key enablers of the energy transition envisages higher volumes of exchanges on all markets, cross border exchanges at wholesale level and citizen involvement at the local level.
New services are anticipated for all kinds of customers for planning, maintenance and operational issues. Digitalisation is key as an enabler, but guarantees also are required around data privacy and ownership
Infrastructure for such integrated systems includes the upgrading of electricity networks, large-scale rollout of conversion and storage technologies, and efficient energy use at all levels and particularly in the building, industry, transport and ICT sectors.
Over and above these building blocks, ETIP SNET set out additional requirements for the Vision 2050.
One is the need for the European energy industry to strengthen its leadership in the world economy, “particularly for integrated generation, transmission, distribution, energy conversion, storage and end-use processes”. The European industry must improve its cutting-edge capabilities and competitiveness, says the report.
Another issue is that the system complexity and automation requires highly-skilled staff, with various professional backgrounds. This will require new methods of learning and teaching, particularly at the higher level.
Last but not least, research and innovation should be prioritised. Research facilities should be world leading, and innovative research should be validated in large-scale demonstrations and the deployment of project results accelerated.
Europe’s energy research next steps
According to the ETIP SNET document the next step will be the development of a Mission 2035 taking a deeper dive into the research and innovation effort over the next 15 years, clarifying the types of projects and ensuring the effectiveness of funding.
In addition, the ten-year roadmaps will continue to be updated to support the Vision 2050.