Renewable integration still a challenge for utilities

The prospect of renewables taking a greater share of the energy mix, as well as additional demand from electric vehicles, poses utilities with a major challenge, say industry experts.

Renewable integration still a challenge for utilities

The prospect of renewables taking a greater share of the energy mix, as well as additional demand from electric vehicles, poses utilities with a major challenge, say industry experts.

As the world continues to fight against the effects of climate change, renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, wave, biomass and others are often cited as the solution to help both curb carbon emissions and meet rising global demand for power.

Indeed, in a recent report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that the total global potential for renewable energy "is substantially higher than both current and future projected global energy demand". The study states that renewable energy production will increase between three and 10 times by 2050, with almost half of all new electricity production capacity installed globally in the two year period 2008-2009 coming from renewable sources.

The renewables revolution is already well under way. In 2008, renewables contributed around 19 percent of the global electricity supply. By 2030 wind power alone could be providing 10 percent of the total global electricity supply and in excess of 20 percent by 2050 - a massive expansion considering that in 2009 wind power met just 1.8 percent of worldwide electricity demand.

So far, so good. And what's more, analysts expect investment in renewables to increase as concerns over the viability of nuclear power continue to rise in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and Fukushima nuclear emergency. The change in sentiment will be seen as more evidence of the potential for energy investment shifting to renewables.

However, there are a number of potential challenges inherent in integrating renewable energy into the existing grid - due in large part to its intermittent and distributed nature - that utilities will need to address in order to capitalise on the renewables opportunity. The lack of an effective electricity storage system means utilities must deal with unwanted supply during low-demand hours and insufficient supply during peak-demand times.

It's an issue that will be further exacerbated by the prospect of greater use of electric vehicles, which poses utilities with an additional supply/demand dilemma. Analysts suggest an electric car consumes about as much power per year as an average European household, and the rapid increase in demand will force utilities to offer so-called smart metering solutions to cope.

"If you have 50 percent or more renewable in the grid and also large amounts of electric cars to supply, then the grid will need smart metering and we will have to prepare their roll-out soon," says Marc De Witte, VP for Research and Innovation at French energy firm GDF Suez.

Jens Jakobsson, Vice President for Distribution at Danish utility Dong, agrees. "Most people will charge their cars when they get home from work, which is still during peak demand hours. That will put increasing pressure on the grid," he says. "It would be best if a smart metering option could automatically control when the electric car is being charged, preferably during low-demand, off-peak hours."

Some grids may struggle to supply enough power if drivers plug in millions of electric cars at about the same time, particularly during peak demand.

The topic is sure to be top of the agenda at the Next Generation Utilities Summit Europe 2011 that takes place in Malaga, Spain from 15-17 November. This closed-door summit, hosted by GDS International, features some of the leading voices in the European utilities sector. As well as both De Witte and Jakobsson, attendees include Philip Lowe, Director General of the Energy Directorate at the European Commission; Julio Gonzalo, CTO of Gas Natural Fenosa; and Miguel Angel Sanchez Fornie, Director of Control Systems at Iberdrola.

Along with how to integrate renewables into the grid, other topics on the agenda include how R&D can deliver a low carbon future, overcoming infrastructural and regulatory challenges in Europe, achieving greater customer satisfaction through real-time information, and using GIS as the foundation for the smart grid.

The Next Generation Utilities Summit Europe 2011 is an exclusive C-level event reserved for 100 participants that includes expert workshops, facilitated roundtables, peer-to-peer networks and co-ordinated meetings.

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