Review: Integrating Renewable Energy: Opportunities and Challenges

by Jackson Zhao, MSc in ECM

View the associated event for this review

Renewable energy is widely regarded as the core technological option to decarbonise the world’s energy system. To spark thoughtful discussion, Dr. Helen Gavin, on Tuesday Oct. 22, has given a lecture titled as “Integrating Renewable Energy: Opportunities and Challenges”, organised by Oxford Energy Network. Dr. Gavin suggested that renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar are economically competitive, technologically mature, publicly acceptable, and environmentally friendly based on accumulated evidence and surveys. Overly investing on nuclear electricity or thermal power might engender relatively higher economic loss and public opposition under the Paris Agreement framework.

Several challenges remain to be overcome before the society can harvest these opportunities. Variability of renewable sources is of significant attention in constructing high-penetration renewable electricity system, as highlighted by Dr. Gavin. Potential mismatch between electricity generation and consumption can result in unwanted economic and social loss, which usually is the first priority for system operators to keep away with. Various responses have been proposed, including storage systems, flexible demand and interconnection among regional grids. While technological progress has been achieved, variability in longer timeframe continue to experience economic and technical barriers, e.g., seasonal changes in wind and solar generation. Dr. Gavin mentioned that lack of public will and reform in electricity market structure also stall the experimentation and adoption of demand-side response (DSR) technology, as there is not sufficient incentive. However, potential of DSR is significant. The example illustrated by Dr. Gavin suggests that using algorithms to manage the defrost timing of retail and household refrigerators to mitigate grid surges is currently under trial, and is highly implementable. Additionally, building more interconnectors could achieve higher system reliability, increasing interconnector-transported electricity from 6.6% to 22% by 2025 (Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, 2017).

The second challenge discussed by Dr. Gavin is how to transform energy use other than electricity by renewables. Heating and transport energy use is most prominent in UK and many developed economies, accounting for over 50% of energy consumption (National Statistics, 2018). Improving energy efficiency and electrification are the two most proposed solutions. Energy efficiency improvement is usually suggested as a win-win solution. Building insulation renovation, for example, could reduce household energy bills and carbon emission simultaneously. Estimated by UK government (2018), homes with cavity wall insulation and insulation thicker than 125mm accounts for 69% and 66% relatively. Large improvement could be made. Using solar or alternative fuels such as hydrogen for heating are additional options to abandon carbon fuels.

Dr. Gavin highlighted that the last, and definitely not least, challenge is changing mindset. This is mostly manifested in correcting market failures which require institutional changes supported by the public. Policy interventions such as carbon pricing and tariff scheme reform are probably essential in breaking behavioural barriers and realising societal changes, but could face public and business opposition. One example to demonstrate the current distorted market incentive is that a UK water utility chooses to build onsite gas-to-electricity plants instead of using grid electricity since it is cheaper. This decision is not satisfactory in terms of carbon emission.

After lecture, Dr. Gavin and participants had some further discussions about UK electricity price scheme, the UK roadmap to zero-emission, and some other topics.

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