There is technology on tap to get hydro schemes connected to power grids sooner rather than later, writes Dr Graham Ault, co-founder and Executive Vice President of Markets and Alliances at Smarter Grid Solutions
The calls to get more renewables into our energy mix are growing louder all the time. Hardly a week goes by without some fresh warning from the scientific community about the closing window of opportunity to tackle the climate crisis. Accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean power has become a high political priority in countries around the world. However, those involved in developing renewable schemes know all too well that it’s not as simple as plugging in and switching on. The challenges in getting such developments connected to power grids are well documented.
In many countries there is concern about capacity and the need to upgrade grids to cope with the additional load from renewables. However, there are technologies available to address these concerns.
What we call active network management (ANM) technology basically works like traffic lights, signalling to the different sources of power in an area, second-by-second, when it is appropriate to come onto the grid to meet demand. Use of such an automated tool to manage the grid in real time means you make use of any available spare capacity. And it provides a cheaper and quicker way of handling the electricity output from a new generator than the traditional capital-intensive option of upgrading the grid.
Renewable energy developers
My own company has experience of helping a range of renewable energy developers, including hydro. Back in 2018, our technology supported the connection of the wonderfully-named Awesome Energy project, a 350kW hydropower scheme on the River Avich on the west coast of Scotland. (The awesome name is in recognition of the local importance of Loch Awe.) The scheme not only provides green energy but will generate a valuable revenue stream for the local community for many years to come.
In the Northern Isles of Scotland we helped connect wave and tidal schemes that would otherwise have been delayed or abandoned. The savings for developers and utilities are significant. In Orkney for example, the use of our ANM technology on the local grid meant that the power network operator did not need to spend £30million on a subsea cable.
And recent analysis of an ANM project on the east coast of Scotland further underlines the benefits of taking a flexible approach in areas of constraint. At Dunbar, between 2015 and 2019, five energy projects - four wind farms and an energy-from-waste development - were able to connect to the grid well ahead of a proposed upgrade in 2021. Four of the projects would probably not have gone ahead at all if they had had to wait until then for a connection. The avoided grid connection and upgrade costs by the use of ANM was publicly reported by SP Energy Networks as £20m.
Meanwhile, in the United States, our partnership with AVANGRID has delivered a ground-breaking grid integration project that has the potential to more than double wind and solar generation.
The Flexible Interconnect Capacity Solution (FICS) project has successfully connected three new 5MW PV solar farms in Spencerport, New York state, to the network. Analysis suggests this could increase grid hosting capacity by up to 200 per cent.
In the past, the solar farms in question would have been rejected for connection until structural upgrades were made but the technology we have deployed prevents these assets from overloading the grid. It is hoped that the FICS project represents a launchpad for much faster and larger renewable energy developments across the US. In both the UK and US, electricity regulators are taking a much closer look at the potential for flexible connections to enable much more local generation as well as save bill payers from additional cost burdens of grid upgrades.
It is also worth noting that in recent years water utilities have become much more interested in using their land for renewables, so they are familiar with the connection issues we are talking about. The flip side is that water utilities also have a lot of flexibility when it comes to potable and waste water pumping and processing, so they can vary when they consume and produce electricity. This makes them ideal candidates for the kind of distributed energy system that will become increasingly common. As we move away from having a small number of centralised fossil fuel generators to having multiple smaller-scale clean energy sources and storage, the need to manage grids in a smart and flexible way is going to become paramount.
Looking at the bigger picture, if we’re to make an integrated clean electricity system work, we need more international interconnectors to share clean energy between countries, and keep the system balanced and secure. And we need investment in storage, such as batteries, to keep the energy for when it is needed.
With extra renewable capacity, including hydro and new pumped storage, we will need to move to a much more flexible system that incentivises the decentralised sources of generation to match periods of demand.
The transition to truly green grids can be accelerated and I have no doubt that hydropower will continue to play a strong role. The solutions to getting more renewables connected are ready and waiting.