The future is electric
Innovation holds the key to delivering the European Green Deal
The ambition is huge. By 2050, Europe intends to be the world’s first climate-neutral continent. To achieve this, renewable generation will need to replace the electricity currently produced using fossil fuels. This must be achieved while catering for a rapid increase in global electricity demand, which is expected to rise by more than 60% over the next 20 years.
The energy transition is not only about new ways of generating electricity. It is also about new ways of using it. Electricity will largely replace petrol and diesel as a fuel for road vehicles. It will also replace the natural gas and oil we burn to heat our homes and run our industries. In short, electricity will grow in importance as a carbon-free energy carrier.
Electrification of final demand has huge implications not only for generation, but also for transmission and distribution. So what will the future energy system look like? What challenges must be overcome? And what part will technological innovation play in achieving the transition?
A glimpse into the future
Let's imagine it's 2050. Renewables will be the primary source of electricity generation, much of it from offshore wind farms and solar plants. However, households and businesses will also play a part through rooftop solar generation. There is potential for more than 150 million of these mini power stations in Europe by 2050. As generation becomes more decentralised, it will need to become more collaborative.
It's not only generation that will be different. The pattern of consumption will also change. Two things stand out. The first is the electrification of transport – vital if emissions are to be curbed. Tomorrow's vehicles will be electric and there will be millions of them. Even in the short term, numbers are expected to rise rapidly with 13 million zero and low-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, up from fewer than one million today.
The second big change is likely to be the electrification of space heating. This matters because heating is the single biggest source of domestic energy demand. Today, 51% of us depend directly on burning gas, oil or coal to keep our homes warm. In 2050, most space heating will need to be done without the help of carbon. More than 100 million European households will need to make the switch from fossil fuels to electricity for heating.
The net-zero challenge
Achieving net zero will require big changes to the energy system. The opportunities are huge, but so are the risks. Industry participants are turning their attention to three key areas – supply security, affordability and sustainability.
Supply security – the quality and reliability of supplies will become even more important as electricity becomes the primary energy carrier. Grids and distribution networks will need to be smarter and more resilient to cater for new loads, increased decentralisation and higher levels of intermittency. Subsea grids and new interconnectors will be needed to promote energy trading and to improve energy security.
Affordability – the energy transition needs to be affordable for everyone: consumers, developers and operators. Renewable energy developers need ways to reduce the cost of implementing new wind and solar infrastructure at scale. Grid and distribution system operators, meanwhile, need cost-effective ways to upgrade, reinforce and extend their networks so generators and consumers can participate easily in the emerging, decentralised energy system.
Sustainability – increasing electrification will go hand in hand with increasing demand for electricity. This is likely to result in network congestion, particularly in cities. Congestion wastes energy and causes assets to age prematurely. Grid and distribution system operators therefore need ways to reduce system losses and protect grid assets.
How will innovation enable the future energy system?
At Nexans, we believe that innovation holds the key to accelerating the delivery of the future energy system. Here are some of the ways we are helping our customers to ensure that the transition is smooth, swift and cost effective:
Innovations for renewable energy developers. We’re helping the world’s leading renewable energy developers to increase the speed and reduce the cost of deploying new infrastructure. Our innovative plug-and-play cable harnesses for offshore wind turbines and onshore solar plants reduce installation time while increasing reliability during routine operations. Our expertise in turnkey submarine cabling and offshore transmission grids allows operators to connect to markets rapidly. And 2021 will see the launch of Nexans Aurora, the world’s most advanced cable-laying vessel.
Innovations for grid and distribution system operators. We’re working to create a more resilient energy system at every level – from high-voltage electrical interconnectors that span oceans to advanced cabling for national grids and regional distribution networks. Nexans is pioneering the development of superconducting cable technology that eliminates losses and allows our customers to boost the capacity of congested city networks. Meanwhile, our superconducting fault current limiters (SFCLs) provide system operators with a unique tool to get more out of their existing networks.
We also have new digital tools to help Distribution System Operators to get the most out of their infrastructure. Nexans’ Asset Electrical is a strategic asset management solution that provides DSOs with insights into how their power networks are used – and helps them to make better, data-driven decisions about investment. Asset Electrical enables DSOs to achieve the perfect balance between network performance, capex, opex and risk, including financial, regulatory, security and environmental factors. And the integration of data from smart meters will provide even more ways to optimise network performance.
Together, these technologies will play a decisive part in ensuring that tomorrow’s energy system is secure, affordable and sustainable.