Net zero: why producing more renewable energy is only half the answer

The world’s focus is firmly fixed on the global transition to net zero, writes Olivier Pinto, group innovation director of digital and grid at Nexans.

Oliver Pinto, group innovation director of digital and grid at Nexans. Credit: Nexans

Later this year, global leaders will congregate at COP26 in Glasgow to discuss how the world can achieve ambitious climate goals. The need to boost the production of renewable energy will be a core theme of the conference - COP26’s Energy Transition Council has already declared that a ‘rapid’ transition to clean energy is ‘vital’ to achieve climate. But while building more wind and solar farms will help achieve net zero, it’s only half the solution to electrifying the energy sector.

Equally important is future-proofing and modernising the world’s power grid. Generating more renewable energy only works if this power can be delivered to the end user reliably and efficiently. And that’s why transmission and distribution infrastructures are so important.

Growing demand for renewal

The world’s power grids are in urgent need of renewal. Everyone agrees on this – industry, policymakers, governments. Even the public are starting to see first-hand what the consequences can be when power infrastructure can’t cope with new challenges such as increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

But it’s not just heat waves, freak rainfall, or once-in-a-generation winter storms that pose a serious threat to our power supply. Global metal shortages such as copper and to a lesser extent aluminium are less talked about, but are possibly a more pressing issue. Both minerals are crucial for producing electricity cables, meaning a strong supply is needed for energy security. But copper reserves aren’t keeping up with demand and the IEA has warned that mineral supply simply can’t keep up with climate ambition.

Compounding the issue in Europe and the US is the fact their grids are old. Amongst the oldest in the world, in fact. A high proportion of these grid assets were installed at the same time during the post-war boom years of the 1950s and 60s. Not only are the assets aging, so too is expertise on this infrastructure.

Compounding the problem is growing pressure from investors and energy regulators to justify investment into these assets is delivering value. These issues are causing headaches for distribution system operators (DSOs), who want to avoid having to make a deluge of costly renewals at the same time but must ensure that electricity be supplied reliably and safely to the end-user.

When you couple these factors with surging electricity demand, which is expected to grow by a further 20% by 2030, it becomes clear just how urgent the need to modernise grids really is.

Ensuring effective grid infrastructure

So this begs the question – how do we ensure our electricity grids are robust and future-proofed so the world has a reliable and secure source of renewable energy?

Modernising energy grids doesn’t just mean building new assets. It can also mean renewing existing infrastructure selectively, and embedding new digital technologies such as those allowing to detect assets showing signs of advanced ageing or imminent failure, for example.

One of the great things about electrical assets is that they can endure a very long-life span. Take Fire Station No. 6 in the town of Livermore, California, for example. A small-town fire station might seem insignificant in relation to global energy infrastructure, but it provides a truly remarkable example of the durability of electrical equipment. The station is home to a light bulb that has been burning more or less continuously for 120 years – a world record. And operational energy grids also have impressive powers of durability.

Whether high, medium, or low voltage, cables are often capable of providing half a century of service. Sometimes even more. One reason that electrical assets last so long is that there are very few moving parts. Switchgear aside, the only things that move in a power grid are electrons. Provided cables are well manufactured, well laid and kept within thermal norms, they will perform reliably for decades. Pylons, poles, and transformers are also durable. Pylons, for example, have a lifespan of about 80 years provided they are maintained properly.

But when these assets do come to the end of their lifespan, DSOs are thinking harder about how we can get more out of them. And extending the lifespan of these assets can bring a raft of benefits. First, if grid assets are old, but in otherwise good shape, life extensions rather than replacements can save millions in capital spending. Second, postponing asset replacements minimises disruption to customers and the public. Finally, life extensions are kinder to the environment as demand for new assets, and the environmental impact of manufacturing them, is reduced.

The role of technology

The first step in making these cost savings and gains in efficiency is identifying which assets should be prioritised for replacement and which can be kept going for longer. From there, smart and proper asset management is the solution to extending the grid’s lifespan.

Advanced technologies such as AI-powered analytics and digital twin-based simulation softwares enable operators to accurately monitor risk and performance and make better informed decisions related to investments in new assets and optimal maintenance strategies. Better energy storage can also help strengthen a grid's resilience and extend its lifespan, but this requires major innovation over the coming years.

We need to ensure our energy grids can deliver electricity to all corners of the world securely, reliably, and efficiently, and the first step is ensuring our energy grids are fit for purpose.

Main image credit: TebNad