Solving energy 'grid lock' is the hidden answer to soaring demand

There is no global grid and links across national borders or even within large countries are limited or non-existent

Electricity pylons near Frodsham onshore wind farm in Cheshire, England. Reuters
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Energy experts talk generating, but energy professionals think about grids. For every dirham spent on producing low-carbon electricity, 90 fils has to be spent on the grid – but currently the world invests only 50 fils. How do we ensure that electricity gets to consumers at the right time, in the right amount?

The grid is the largest and most complex machine yet built by humanity, as several engineers have observed. It connects generating points – solar and wind farms, nuclear power stations, coal and gas-fired plants and others – with consumers, including homes, businesses and industries.

For long distances, the familiar tall transmission towers strung with cables carry electricity at high voltages, usually 220 or 400 kilovolts. A series of substations and transformers then reduce this to the typical 230 volts of household supply (120 volts in the US), distributing it through lines, usually underground.

And yet there is no global grid. Some parts of the world – North America, Europe – are heavily interconnected. Elsewhere, links across national borders or even within large countries are limited or non-existent.

Japan, bizarrely, has two grids operating on different frequencies for its eastern and western parts, with very limited interconnection. That proved a major problem following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, when nuclear reactors were shut down.

Much of Texas also maintains a nearly independent grid, to avoid US federal regulation, which again proved a problem during the February 2021 winter storm.

Today’s electricity grid faces three major challenges.

First is the rise of variable renewable generating – mostly solar and wind power – which replaces traditional gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric stations whose output can be controlled as desired.

Predictable daily and seasonal variation in renewables comes with less controllable issues such as clouds or dust storms, or long periods of cold, dark, windless winter weather in northern Europe – dunkelflaute in the adopted German term.

Renewables are also built in different places. They may be local, on rooftops, in which case the distribution grid has to manage flows of electricity both out and in. Or, they may be in far-flung windy and sunny locations, requiring transmission lines stretching hundreds of kilometres.

American wind is mostly in the sparsely populated prairie states in the middle of the country. Europe has offshore wind in the North Sea.

China has built huge wind and solar “bases” in the remote western desert provinces, and transmits power to its populous east coast with highly innovative ultra-high voltage lines running at 1,000 kilovolts or more.

These variable renewables are most efficient when output is balanced across large areas, containing contrasting time-zones and climatic regions. That, in turn, will require much more international or even intercontinental interconnection.

Second is the surge in electricity demand. This is nothing new for the Gulf, where consumption has been rising robustly for years. But longer-established economies had grown quite used to very slowly growing or even declining demand due to slow economic and population expansion, and improving energy efficiency, such as the use of LED lighting.

Now this is changing. New clean energy technologies – heat pumps and battery cars – require electricity instead of oil or gas. A hotter climate overall, and rising incomes in countries such as India, means more use of air conditioning. Droughts and growing populations in arid countries require more desalination, increasingly powered by reverse osmosis plants which are energy-efficient but run on electricity. And the explosive growth in electron-hungry data centres, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence was largely unanticipated.

Climate change also makes electricity demand less predictable. Heatwaves drive up demand but can usually be anticipated days in advance. In contrast, cold fronts, often formed as air escapes southward from a warming Arctic, can sweep in with only hours of warning. As more homes are warmed by heat pumps rather than burning gas, that will create surges of power demand. Forest fires threaten power lines – and can be triggered by sagging cables. Ice storms overload and snap lines.

Third is the difficulty of building transmission. In Europe and the US in particular, communities and special interests block construction, often on specious environmental grounds.

Approving rights of way across a thicket of state or national borders is particularly difficult. At the end of 2022, 2,000 gigawatts of renewable and energy storage projects in the US were waiting for grid connections – 50 per cent more than the total installed generating capacity. China and the GCC have a significant advantage here.

Solving these problems requires raising an estimated $21.4 trillion by 2050. Electricity networks should be attractive to long-term asset managers – but they have to be ready to invest, and not just seek to milk the cashflows. Oman sold 49 per cent of its transmission company to State Grid Corporation of China for about $1 billion in 2019, and is planning an IPO this year.

Technology can play an important part. Replacing traditional steel and aluminium power lines with an aluminium and carbon fibre composite reduces losses in the line and can increase its capacity up to three times. This re-uses towers and does not require any new rights-of-way. New lines using this approach can have fewer and smaller towers, also saving costs.

As lines heat up, their capacity decreases. Dynamic line rating adjusts this continually based on ambient temperature, winds and other factors. “Magic balls”, made by companies such as Heimdall Power of Norway, sit on the lines and monitor their temperature, allowing a precise assessment of their capacity in real time.

This allows operators to maximise flow rather than leaving excessive safety margins – boosting usable capacity as much as three times.

Similarly, locally-located batteries and rooftop solar panels can minimise the amount of electricity flow required through the transmission grid at peak times. Demand response technologies schedule flexible loads, such as running washing machines, for off-peak times. GCC countries in particular could make more use of time-of-day pricing – charging more at peak time in return for discounts in quieter hours, like Uber’s surge pricing.

So, we need to be ready to spend serious money on the grid. But, by being a little more clever, we might spare some of that 90 fils per dirham of generating capacity. More importantly, we will save time, a yet more precious commodity in the race to net-zero.

Robin M Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: June 03, 2024, 3:07 AM