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The future is coming, but it's not as different as we think

Back to the Future Part II

The digital technology boom was like nothing we’ve seen before. Our access to music on the go went from Walkmans to Discmans to iPods to iPhones, which is also a computer in our pocket! I thought we would be riding hoverboards, but hey, this is still awesome.

So how will this predict the power generation technology boom? What about these disruptive industries? We’ve got battery storage becoming cheaper and smaller… electric cars getting longer mileage… renewable energy gaining capacity factors… how will they become smaller, easier and replace coal and gas?

In short, they won’t. And here’s why:

Physics.

It gets in the way of everything.

The power sector is far more complex than you could imagine. In Australia, people like you and I represent about 25% of the power demand. That means that 75% of the electricity consumed is either for common good (street lights, hospitals, schools, etc), commercial uses, or industrial uses.

To maintain power flowing to all these things, the grid needs a series of services to keep it alive. Things like frequency control, inertia, voltage control, to name a few. These services get called ancillary services, and are inherent in electricity generators that can deliver power on-demand. These are called synchronous generation technologies or firm capacity. The grid relies on the kinetic energy stored in the available generators for this spinning reserve.

Battery storage is getting cheaper and more efficient, but it is still limited by its materials. There are other sources of grid-scale energy storage that are much more suited to utility-scale, like pumped hydro. Batteries can provide some of the ancillary services, but not all of them. Plus we shouldn't be pinning our hopes on one technology. Batteries are only a small part of the story and there are other storage technologies that are also awesome. That big dark blue bit is 97% of the world's energy storage. The remaining 3% is split among the rest of the technologies.

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As for renewable generation taking over? They all have their limits in capacity factors, and until there’s a commercially-proven, utility-scale alternative for fast frequency response, we will have to rely on big spinning things. 

Hydrogen is going to be part of the story, but it is incredible how much energy it takes to make. The scale of what is required is unimaginable.

The other disruption in our industry is the management side of things. This will make us more efficient and remove some of the human error. This is stuff like creating virtual power plants, smart meters, automated grid management, etc. This will make grid operating a lot easier, but it won’t disrupt the industry in the way the iPhone displaced the Walkman.

We still need everything to be working together, but the more stuff we add to the grid, the more it needs to be managed and the harder it is to manage. I know it’s a cliché answer, but we do actually need it all. We need the renewables and CCS to bring down our emissions, we need the thermal plant to provide on-demand power, we need storage and we need the management side of things to help bring it all together. 

Steph Byrom's picture

Thank Steph for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 17, 2019 6:35 pm GMT

This will make grid operating a lot easier, but it won’t disrupt the industry in the way the iPhone displaced the Walkman.

Great analogy-- too often new technologies are pushed as a 'this vs. that' fight, but sometimes (though not always) the answer is that both have their place. 

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