Powering a net-zero emissions future: Transforming the grid to accelerate the energy transition

Powering a net-zero emissions future: Transforming the grid to accelerate the energy transition

Antonio Cammisecra, Head of Global Infrastructure and Networks, recently took part in a round table organized by The Economist that offered an intriguing – and optimistic – vision of the grids of the future.


Antonio Cammisecra recently took part in an online round table that offered some fascinating insights into the grids of the future towards the energy transition. The event, “Powering a Net Zero Emissions Future: Transforming the Grid to Accelerate the Energy Transition”, which took place on June 15, was supported by Enel and organized by The Economist, the London- based weekly magazine. It was moderated by Cailin Birch, the Global Economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and featured Antonio Cammisecra, together with Tim Green, Co-Director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London, Erik Fairbairn, the Chief Executive and Founder of Pod Point, and Susann Stritzke, a researcher at the Universities of Oxford and Loughborough.

Topics discussed included the need for greater investment into green infrastructure to support the changing energy landscape, the great potential of new technologies to adapt to a sustainable future, and the changing face of the electricity grid.


Upgrading energy infrastructure

The energy industry finds itself in a unique position as it examines its role in tackling the climate emergency. As a result of the energy transition already underway before the pandemic, in addition to being an economic multiplier with spillover impacts on other industries, the industry has emerged as a key player in the recovery for a number of economies.

In emerging economies, too, the energy industry presents a big opportunity to level up infrastructure. While the focus in developed economies is decentralizing grid infrastructure, the limited coverage and fewer people connected to emerging markets grid means that they may move to more energy efficient solutions directly.


Transition to Net Zero

Current modelling on decarbonization the energy industry is trending positive, with considerable consensus in terms of the pathway to Net Zero.

More local programs of electricity generation, and the opportunity for smaller market players to innovate and provide more choice to the consumer, will radically change the electricity landscape in the coming years. When it comes to the incentivization of innovation for both public and private organizations, several players in the industry have the potential to accelerate the transition towards Net Zero in the electricity grid – in particular private startups.

However, an expected growth in demand for electricity will necessitate a huge level of investment to continue the successful decarbonization of the industry.


A changing energy landscape

Demand and supply

Global electricity consumption is due to triple in the coming decade. Yet the expectations from consumers about the footprint of this consumption are also changing. Energy awareness, and more eco-conscious consumers, are leading to more thoughtful consumer choices about the energy consumption of the products they choose to buy, an irreversible trend that will make this green energy footprint a permanent shift in our energy systems.

There are also considerable infrastructure changes required to adapt to the tripling of energy demand. Inevitably, there is a need for increased green generation capacity to handle this growth. Both changes will require a commitment to digitalization of the grid, paving the way for more efficient deployment of electricity.

While consumption is expected to increase, there should still be an aim of reducing energy consumption. Such a reduction is achievable – in particular through innovations in domestic heating, such as the widescale adoption of heat pumps, smart energy management in the domestic market. Such efforts mean an increase in demand needn’t be inevitable.

A r(EV)olution

One reason for the expected increase in demand is due to increasing adoption of electric vehicles in developed countries.

A huge milestone in tackling the climate emergency is reaching a tipping point in electric vehicle adoption. Yet the large-scale use of electric vehicles will also precipitate a sea-change in how our current electricity grid is able to cope.

The pandemic has seemingly accelerated the trend towards electric vehicles, rather than slow it down. To make an example, while at the start of 2020 only 2% of new vehicles in the UK were fully electric, we have now reached around 8%. The confluence of price equalization and range improvement has smoothed the way for faster-than-anticipated adoption, an encouraging development towards the goal of 100% adoption by 2030.

Yet for the electricity grid, this presents its own challenge. A household transitioning from an internal combustion engine to an electric vehicle is equivalent to that household doubling its electricity usage. Uniquely, however, while some may expect an electricity crunch as a huge influx of demand reaches the grid in coming years, electric vehicles present an opportunity to control the demand made of the grid by filling in ‘troughs’ where general electricity usage is low, such as overnight.


Future forward – key challenges

There are a number of yet-to-be-resolved challenges inherent in the transition to Net Zero.

Consumer habits

On the consumer end, a more decentralized electricity system, where consumers are increasingly rewarded for different patterns of energy usage, will require a huge shift in habits. While the current centralized system doesn’t require much foresight on the part of the consumer, upcoming changes will require even more engagement with the consumer, to encourage self-consumption of electricity, or indeed more local engagement such as peer-to- peer electricity trading or local energy storage programs.

Seasonal storage

What is the next big innovation needed to power the digitalization agenda in the energy industry? While increased renewable usage and digitalization have clear technological pathways to success, the final piece of the puzzle is long-term energy storage. However difficult, such long-term energy storage is likely to be necessary in countries where renewable energy generation capacity, as well as usage, fluctuates significantly requiring longer-term storage than batteries are able to provide.

Future-forward: imagining a new energy landscape

While there remain challenges, the technological solutions currently paving the road to Net Zero weren’t even in development 15 years ago, giving hope that new solutions being explored will yield results in the near future. We mustn’t base too much of our energy strategy on current consumption patterns. The development of zero energy and plus-energy housing in many parts of Europe may reduce the need for huge capacity building in the way currently envisaged. While much integrated planning is required for zero energy housing to become widespread, it is already beginning to be adopted.