A bridge to net zero society

By Oskar Almén

The journey towards a net-zero society requires a dramatic shift in our current energy system. By 2030, it’s estimated that 422 terawatt-hours of fossil electricity production in Europe will be replaced by wind and solar alternatives, and that the annual consumption of 215 million tons of oil for transportation will be replaced by synthetic fuels or electrofuels (e-fuels).

To deliver these ambitions, renewable infrastructure will need to be constructed at a larger-than-ever scale. For instance, wind turbines will need to reach a peak height of 300 metres, and deliver 50 per cent more capacity per turbine. This can only be achieved if turbines are placed in large areas further out to sea. One complication is that renewables such as wind, solar, tidal or wave devices generate energy intermittently, and struggle to match the consistency of output generated by connected grids. Another is that renewables, such as wind turbines, can often produce too much power, to the extent where they have been disconnected from the grid to stop it from overloading.

To solve this disparity, renewable energy needs to be transformed into one of a number of carriers and stored. This is where the concept of Power-to-X becomes relevant. This is the ability to turn renewable energy into storable and transportable units. Examples of Power-to-X includes conversion to heat, hydrogen or synthetic fuels, and offers enormous opportunity to harness much more, if not all, of the available renewable energy capacity. As hydrogen applications in land-based and maritime transport as well as steel production reach maturity, it is also an attractive near-term option for Power-to-X facilities.

The engineering required to deliver the energy transformation is complex. However, history proves that engineering can be mastered. Technological advances have given us entirely new modes of transport, helped us respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and delivered new sustainable product and packaging solutions. But to transform the current energy system, engineering must be mastered quickly in a commercially attractive manner, and this must be supported by a clear set of rules and regulations applicable across jurisdictions and technologies.

By addressing three key challenges, energy producers can overcome the engineering complexities and stay much more closely connected to the needs of the consumers of the future.

Reducing complex regulations

It can take between eight to 12 years for offshore wind usage to be permitted. Lengthier permitting periods are seen in countries where the responsibility is placed upon the windfarm developer to engage with government agencies, conduct site evaluations and acquire necessary permissions.

By placing logistical responsibilities, such as grid connection planning, on government agencies, Denmark have reduced the permission period to eight years. This has been achieved by defining a clear permission process driven by the government agencies rather than the applicants. With the addition of adjacent Power-to-X facilities, a clearly defined and swift permitting process is necessary. The gains in the form of an increased utilization of green energy is attractive to all parties.

Harnessing the potential of ‘energy islands’

Developing Power-to-X facilities from offshore infrastructure requires land. Denmark set a goal to establish two ‘energy islands’ dedicated to energy generation. These islands allow for heavier installations with a larger footprint compared with traditional off-shore jacket structures, and provide attractive opportunities for energy producers. They can also accommodate housing, seaports, and heliports, to facilitate maintenance operations.

Plans are focused on utilising natural land on Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, and developing artificial space in close proximity to the Danish west coast. With the approval of Belgium, this ‘energy island’ would successfully connect grids around the North Sea. However, the full commercial operating model has yet to be developed. Energy providers in other regions should be exploring similarly ambitious goals, scoping geographical areas where energy islands – or similar – can become Power-to-X hubs.

Taking a holistic view

Investors and energy storage site operators must develop a suitable ownership model, such as a partnership, alliance, or transactional deal. The operational model for each site must be optimised to comply with local conditions. For example, Power-to-X will require specific investments depending on the alternative energy medium they are designed to produce.

This can range from sustainable aviation fuel near an airport, to hydrogen gas surrounding a maritime or land transport refueling station.

Including the concept of Power-to-X in the early stages of planning and considering the particularities of energy storage, site locations can provide solid grounds for an expanded renewable energy production ecosystem. If the process is managed effectively, we can all collectively move a step closer to realising the ambitious reduction in carbon emission set out by the EU.

About the authors

Oskar Almén PA energy and utilities expert

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