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2023 Energy and Utilities Sector Outlook

Energy and Utilities Sector Outlook

Power | Mar, 2023

The energy and utility industry is undergoing a pivotal transformation, leading the charge towards decarbonization while enabling end-users to reach their own sustainability goals. Supply chain snags exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising costs of commodity due to increasing demand from industries, and extreme weather events—from droughts to floors, heat waves to wildfires—are continuing to plague the power and utilities sector. However, these challenges are accelerating the power sector to shift towards sustainability in terms of production, transmission, distribution, storage, and maintenance. According to International Energy Agency, coal-fired power plants currently fuel 37% of global electricity. As per their prediction, coal will still generate 22% of the world's electricity in 2040. However, scaling of renewable power projects at a fast rate, owing to high investment from governments across the world could facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to green energy for electricity generation.

Balancing Energy Efficiency with Grid Resiliency

Power grid is essential to modern life since electricity keeps the economy running. As the ways of energy production are rapidly changing, the shift requires modernization and upgradation of electric power grids. The foundation of any utility is delivering reliable services to its customers, which is becoming increasingly difficult due to increasing electrification. Moreover, extreme weather events such as raging fires, ravaged landscapes, powerful winds, etc. continue to affect the aging power grids and disrupt the distribution of electricity. Besides, the rising adoption of electric cars and renewable energy sources, and rapid 5G expansion are creating a need for improved electric grid efficiency.

Technology remains at the core of electric utilities’ future. Hence, stakeholders and industry players are increasingly working towards building next-generation, digital, communicative “smart” grids for enhanced resiliency, reliability, and control of power flow. The US Energy Department has recently announced USD48 million in funding towards a new program to support the development of faster, more capable electronics, which would help the nation to meet climate goals and extend the benefits of decarbonized energy throughout the country. To meet the goals of 50% carbon emissions reduction by 2030, 100 % clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero by 2050, the entire power sector needs to be upgraded, with improvements in grid infrastructure. The US government will invest USD3 billion for smart grids to better prepare for the integration of electric car and increase efficiency of electric power system.

Many research initiatives are underway to modernize electric grids with enhanced focus on deploying low-cost sensors, real-time visualization and data analysis, developing microgrid technologies, controlling power flows using unmanned aerial systems, and integrating and utilizing renewable energy more effectively. Investments in electricity grids is increasing significantly, owing to the rising initiatives of advanced economics to support and enable the electrification of buildings, industry, and accommodate variable renewables on the power system.

Electric grids of the future can face various challenges such as extreme weather events, variability and intermittency from renewable generation sources, and cybersecurity. Hence, technology solutions such as artificial intelligence tools can help ensure seamless transition to the future grid and solve the problems facing the future electric network. Sensors and automation can identify parts of the grid that are vulnerable and reroute it during gaps in the flow. Predictive analytics enabled through the network of sensors, meters, and actuators in smart grids can help to predict power loads and renewable energy generation as well as indicate a loss in power. According to the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, peak loads can be reduced by up to 150 GW through demand management. Moreover, the blockchain technology could provide transparent, tamper-proof, and secure systems that reduce cybersecurity risks by detecting network attack failures.

In 2021, the penetration of smart meters stood at 74% with the installation of 173.4 million units, but the penetration is expected to reach of a level of 93% in the United States. The increased computing power and edge analytics capability of smart metering technology is becoming increasingly important as they help better understand how electricity is being generated or used.

More Emphasis on Improving Energy Storage Systems

Since energy storage systems form a critical part of the modern renewable energy infrastructure, utility companies and other stakeholders are increasingly focusing towards advancements in energy storage. Battery storage systems are utilized to store the energy captured from solar arrays, wind farms, pumped hydropower and more to balance the power grid and enable undisrupted flow of electricity. Utilizing energy storage systems, utilities can meet other needs such as relieving congestion and smoothing out the variations in power. Energy storage forms the foundation over which all renewable-sourced decarbonization efforts are being built. High penetration of renewable can threaten grid infrastructure without proper energy storage systems in place. Most of our energy storage strategies are currently shaped by lithium-ion batteries. However, battery companies are constantly innovating to find chemistries that are cheaper, denser, lighter, powerful, taking sustainability into consideration.

Advanced battery technologies including silicon and lithium-metal anodes, solid-state electrolytes, advanced Li-ion design, lithim-sulfur, sodium-ion, redox flow batteries, Zn-ion, Zn-Br, etc. are revolutionizing the energy storage systems. Besides, many startups are introducing utility-scale energy storage for grid-level integration to match the storage capacity directly to customer energy needs. For instance, Vanadis Power proprietary battery, Reflex provides high energy density and capacity. The Vanadium flow battery by the startup stores electricity in a patented liquid electrolyte instead of solid electrodes to eliminate capacity fade. Another UK-based startup, Genista Energy has designed a lithium-iron phosphate-based battery energy storage system, consisting of a large container with several battery strings, to provide power in remote locations. 

New Energy Storage System Boosts Life in Coal Power Plants

Power companies spent billions of dollars of coal-fired plants for generations. But as coal becomes of an environment liability, many plants are shutting down. Retired power plants, once a source of greenhouse gases, are being repurposed for delivering renewable power. Thousands of coal power plants across the globe may be dead to coal, but they occupy land, turbine equipment, and grid infrastructure, which make them a suitable location for large clean energy storage systems. Aging and dysfunctional coal-burning power plants are becoming increasingly valuable to accelerate renewable energy projects. Since these power plants are already wired into the power grid, the regulatory hassles for building miles of high-tension wires and towers can be eliminated, which cam save a lot of time and money for utility companies. In Illinois, more than 9 coal plants are underway to become solar farms and energy storage facilities. Similar projects in Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are expected to take shape in the coming years.

Repurposing coal plants as thermal energy storage systems is the most viable business model for utility companies. In a molten-salt energy storage capacity, energy is gathered and sent to the storage system, where a heat pump converts the energy into thermal energy. The heat is then stored in molted salt for 200 hours and the cold in a chilled liquid. A heat engine converts the temperature differe back to power. When required, the electricity is sent to the grid. Major utilities could save approx. USD100 million per year by using thermal energy storage sited in former coal plants while meeting economic and regulatory requirements advanced towards clean energy. Duke Energy Corporation is planning to test a similar idea in its former coal plants, collaborating with Malta Inc. to explore the molten salt storage, which could further be scaled up for use at other sites.

Emerging Power as a Service (PaaS) Sector

Power as a service sector is a business model where companies that may provide solar and wind installations on a customer property. Based on the consumption, the customer has to pay for the clean energy produced without having to make any upfront capital or operational expenditure. Distributed energy resources (DERs) can help businesses and individuals reduce their carbon footprints. For instance, green energy supplier start-up Rensource offers PaaS solar-hybrid system in Nigeria. The system is installed at the customers’ premises, where it is maintained and serviced by the company. The PaaS solution can help overcome the longstanding failure to develop sufficient utility-scale power infrastructure, which could potentially replace millions of fossil fuel generators in the country. 

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