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Renewables, EVs, flexibility and sulphur hexafluoride – top energy predictions for the year ahead

Renewables, EVs, flexibility and sulphur hexafluoride – top energy predictions for the year ahead

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This year is set to once again bring focus to the ongoing transition of the energy industry. Responding to the public’s concerns around the progress of climate change and the industry’s push to adopt green technologies will be two major drivers for the year ahead. It is increasingly clear that government leaders must take a proactive approach in addressing the roadblocks currently hindering significant progress. Ashraf Yehia, Managing Director, Eaton – Middle East, offers his top energy predictions for 2020.

1. Renewable energy will continue to overtake traditional sources across EMEA. More specifically, solar energy will come back to Europe and remain as a viable source of energy. Over the next year or so, we’ll see a growing trend of zero subsidy large-scale solar projects being developed across the region. This will be coupled with an uptick in storage plus solar on buildings which will enable consumers to capture and save energy until it’s needed most – thereby reducing their energy bill.

2. The European Commission must review the progress for reliable, cost-effective and energy efficient alternatives to Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) in electric switchgear. As more solar and wind farms are being built, the demand for electrical switchgear is increasing. Unfortunately, most of today’s switchgear contains – and leaks – SF6 gas. SF6 is by far the worst of all greenhouse gases (23,500 times as potent as CO2) and it has long since been banned in the EU for most uses.

However, a carve-out was allowed for large electrical switchgear due to industry pressure. As the awareness of global warming has increased, both industry and regulators are increasingly aware that SF6 usage in electric switchgear is growing and must now be addressed. By latest July 2020, the EU must report back on this issue and assess how quickly we as an industry can end the use of SF6. This applies particularly to medium voltage switchgear, which is the most prevalent type and where a high number of commercially available and long existing systems are available in the market.

3. More consumer EV models will be released in 2020 – from both traditional OEMs and smaller, challenger brands. While it is hard to predict the number of EV’s to be sold in any one year, it is expected to continue growing.  Even if complete and total EV adoption is still years away, attention is required now on creating the proper infrastructure and ecosystems. This can alleviate concerns about range anxiety, while increasing the overall attractiveness of moving to EV’s. For example, ensuring smart charging and bi-directional chargers instead of simple ‘dumb’ chargers will in turn lower the cost to consumers, reduce pressure on the electrical system and help accelerate the rapid adoption of EV’s. 

4. Flexibility and a need for updated regulations will become an urgent point of conversation within the energy market this year. Growing EV’s means growing energy demand and as renewables are not as dispatchable as coal or gas, a solution must be found. Grid management to match supply and demand of electricity is becoming increasingly complicated as more decentralised generation comes into the equation and demand changes.  Enabling new types of assets such as energy storage and smart use of power is required to ensure a stable system by allowing grid operators to leverage added flexible capabilities.

5. There is an overall trend of large battery storage projects coming onto the grid, but behind the meter is still limited due to outdated regulations and market structures. With the growth in EV’s and new gigawatt scale factories coming online, battery prices continue to fall. This is enabling a growth in large grid energy storage projects. However, behind the meter, energy storage still cannot access the same markets and as a result, is limited. Given that electrons flow easily, opening up markets for aggregators and improving regulations is needed to rapidly accelerate the growth in using batteries ‘behind the meter’ – namely in buildings and residences. This will allow faster growth in all renewables and democratise energy storage and solar for all electricity consumers. 

6. The hydrogen economy and the understanding of green versus grey energy is going to be a major topic of discussion in 2020. Stakeholders are increasingly aware of how we can move from natural gas to the use of low cost, green energy to generate hydrogen. While this was previously seen as only important within the mobility industry, over the next year or so we’ll likely see it get more attention within stationary applications and industrial processes like green steel. Not only is this a way to decarbonise heat and long-distance mobility, it can also be used as a way to manage seasonal energy demand.

7. There will be more of a focus on the digitalisation of the grid. There can be no ‘smart’ grid without comprehensive awareness around what is happening across all energy systems. What is clear is that we must avoid major blackouts – like the one seen in the UK in 2019 – and the best way to do so will be by leveraging new digital tools. It’s now possible to create and manage microgrids that can let parts of the grid run without interruption even when major failures or unplanned events occur. Until now, most of these innovations have only been simulated and it’s time to increase the number of pilots and the development of digitalisation, and the implementation of software. This will be the next big step towards the smart grid of the future.

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