EU-Sysflex: A massive project aiming to create a ‘European energy union’

6 Mar 2020810 Views

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Aerial shot of a sustainable neighbourhood in Almere, the Netherlands. Image: © Pavlo Glazkov/Stock.adobe.com

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A quiet revolution is underway in Europe’s energy grids as a project called EU-Sysflex could allow us all to be energy providers.

There is no doubt that when it comes to how we produce and consume electricity, sticking with what we know is not going to cut it. The world is in the midst of a climate crisis, and it appears that it will only get worse before it gets better.

The EU, hoping to be a leader in decarbonisation, set out the European Green New Deal at the start of this year. Described by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the time as the EU’s “man on the moon moment”, the deal aims to spend at least €1trn overhauling the continent’s infrastructure and energy usage so that it can be carbon neutral by 2050.

Among the long list of changes that need to be made is the continent’s energy grid; one built around centralised systems with large energy plants which, in many cases, use fossil fuels to produce electricity. However, the rapid adoption of renewables on to the grid – in particular, wind and solar – means the days of centralised grids could be numbered.

In addition to large-scale renewable energy sources, the grid of the future could be led by homeowners, landowners and businesses who decide to install a wind turbine or solar panels on their properties.

But what does this energy grid look like? To help figure this out, a consortium called EU-Sysflex – led by Ireland’s energy grid provider EirGrid – has been established and will run until next year. John Lowry, project manager of EU-Sysflex and EirGrid, told Siliconrepublic.com about the project and what it can achieve.

John Lowry smiling in a white shirt and black tie against a background of daffodils and trees.

John Lowry, project manager, EirGrid/EU-Sysflex. Image: EirGrid

Could you briefly explain the EU-Sysflex project?

Established in 2017, the EU-Sysflex project is being delivered by a broad energy sector consortium from across Europe. The consortium is proudly led by Ireland’s electricity grid operator EirGrid.

It receives funding under Horizon 2020 and involves 34 organisations from 15 countries across Europe with a budget of €26m.

The project is fundamentally about addressing the needs of the pan-European power system as we transition to a low-carbon, renewable energy-driven Europe. The challenges are enormous, not just in terms of the scale of renewables that need to be built, but how we integrate those sources of energy onto the grid while maintaining reliability, stability, efficiency and resilience.

Today in Europe, renewables meet approximately 30pc of our electricity needs. The ambition is to increase this to 50pc by 2030 and to be fully decarbonised by 2050. Meeting our 2030 targets will require transformational change across Europe, we will see almost a doubling of renewables such as wind and solar.

‘The future is a European energy union’

In addition, where electricity is sourced will change significantly. To date, electricity grids are centralised with a relatively small number of large power stations providing our energy needs.

However, this is changing. Where we source our electricity is becoming more decentralised with more smaller-scale renewables spread across our grids. For example, we are seeing the beginnings of residential power generation through rooftop solar.

Also, how we use electricity is changing in transport and heat. We are seeing technological advancements creating greater consumer participation and choice in how our energy needs are managed; for example, the use of in-house controllers for heating our homes and water.

This presents new challenges for power system operators across Europe such as EirGrid. EU-Sysflex is providing the much-needed research and innovation required to bring all of this together while seamlessly operating the system and ensuring the lights remain on.

Is it now impossible for a national grid to work independently from other nations?

There is no doubt that a more interconnected network with other countries provides many benefits. This includes from energy balancing, market efficiency, renewable energy facilitation and power system resilience perspectives.

These are some of the reasons why we are enhancing our interconnection to mainland Europe via the development of the Celtic Interconnector. If we look at European policy, it recognises the synergies of broader integration across market development, system operation and regulatory regimes. The future is a European energy union!

Solar panels on a red-tiled roof on a sunny day.

Image: © diyanadimitrova/Stock.adobe.com

What role does energy storage have with EU-Sysflex and Ireland’s energy security?

Energy storage has been in existence for many decades primarily through hydroelectric power generation.

In fact, the majority of renewables today across mainland Europe come from hydroelectricity. Transmission system operators, such as EirGrid, love hydropower as it is a reliable, fast-acting renewable source of energy and services.

However, there are other storage technologies that will play an increasingly important role in the future power system. Take battery storage, for example.

Over the coming decade, we will see the large deployment of battery storage right across the energy spectrum from transmission level right down to our homes. At transmission level, we see battery storage offering additional resilience to the power system in the form of fast-acting system services. This will help keep the system stable when 70pc of our electricity needs will come from renewables, the vast majority of which will come from wind and solar.

Right down the other end of the scale, battery storage offers in-home efficiency and choice in how people’s electricity needs are met and managed.

In aggregated form, it offers the potential of providing services back to the grid, which opens up a huge opportunity. With technology advancements, we are beginning to see other storage offerings that may offer significant benefit to power system operation and decarbonisation such as hydrogen technology.

How does EirGrid encourage energy suppliers to invest in flexible grids when the cost of renewable energy is falling rapidly?

We help to create the right market signals to ensure the right investment in flexible technology through the provision of flexible systems. These services support the electricity system to make it more flexible and is essential when we have high levels of renewable on the systems.

We use a range of technologies to provide this flexibility, including conventional generators, wind units and other new technologies.

System services will be a cornerstone of the market in a world where we are managing a system with 70pc renewables.

If we look at the value of this market, it has gone from approximately €55m in 2016 to €140m today, and we envisage this increasing dramatically further over time as we move towards 2030. The money is shifting from energy payments to system services.

In order to develop the market and provide opportunity for innovation and new technology, we run an annual qualification trial process, which provides a competitive route to market for technologies in the provision of system services.

For example, this year we are running trials examining the potential of aggregated residential services. This is a trial examining the capability of homes to provide services in an aggregated manner to the grid from rooftop solar, battery storage and electric vehicle charging. We are also running a larger trial of solar technology to provide services.

What happens to Sysflex after the project ends in 2021?

Ultimately, we intend on providing a roadmap for Europe to help power system operators implementing system operation and flexibility solutions required to meet our renewable ambition.

The project will help inform future EU policy direction and design of future projects in research and innovation. It is hoped that EU-Sysflex will help support and improve EU competitiveness providing opportunity for technology providers and industry.

Colm Gorey is a senior journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com