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More of a good thing – is surplus renewable electricity an opportunity for early decarbonisation?

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We are entering a world where renewables will make up an increasing share of our electricity supply –the electricity sector was the leading sector for energy investment in 2018, the third year in a row that this has occurred.

This trend is set to continue. In WEO 2018’s New Policies Scenario, 21% of global electricity production is projected to come from variable renewables by 2040, up from 7% in 2018, supported by about $5.3 trillion of investment. The EU share is even higher at around 39%. In our more ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario, which aims to get energy system emissions down to levels consistent with the Paris goals, variable renewables are projected to supply 38% of global electricity in 2040 (44% in the EU), a level that would require nearly $8.5 trillion of generation investment.

Regardless of scenario, this rapid expansion of renewables will inevitably lead to particular challenges to operating power systems. This is best highlighted by the so-called duck curve, made famous by the California ISO.

The curve was developed to show the impact of increasing distributed solar PV capacity on the demand for grid electricity.  As solar PV capacity grows, the demand for grid electricity falls during the day with the greatest decrease in the middle of the day when PV production is highest – the belly of the duck.  In the afternoon as PV production declines towards sunset, the demand for grid electricity can grow quite quickly – the neck of the duck.

The duck is growing faster than anticipated. Five years ago, the California ISO had expected California midday demand to drop over 40% on a sunny spring day by 2020 thanks to the growth of small solar PV systems. In fact, by 2018, the spring mid-day demand on the high voltage system had already decreased by two thirds. The consequent increase in supply required in the late afternoon as solar production recedes, was already close to 15 GW, significantly greater than the 2020 anticipated level of 13 GW.

The result is that some excess supply needs to be curtailed to balance the system. While the percentages of solar and wind production that have to be curtailed in California are rather small, in other jurisdictions the share is more significant.

In China, for example, the national average for wind curtailment was around 7% in 2018, with much higher levels in certain provinces. In the Canadian province of Ontario about one quarter of variable renewable generation in 2017 had to be curtailed, along with cuts in nuclear and hydropower output. This was in a jurisdiction where wholesale market prices were zero or negative almost one-third of that year.

The challenges are clear – a world with higher shares of variable renewable energy (VRE) – i.e., wind and solar PV – will face challenges with integration. This is a priority area of work for the IEA, and we are focused on providing insights on the issues and technologies that can be employed to deal with higher shares of variable renewables.

One of these insights is that renewables integration can be divided into a set of six phases dependent partly on the share of variable renewables in the system, but also on other system-dependent factors such as the share of storage hydro and interconnections.

Two countries have already reached Phase 4. Denmark, which has been a leader, has the significant advantage of strong interconnections to handle both surpluses and shortfalls. Ireland has much weaker interconnections and additional measures have been needed to ensure short-term system stability.

No country is yet in Phase 5 (where production can exceed demand) or in Phase 6, where seasonal storage solutions would be needed to match supply and demand.

Strong renewables policies are expected to continue to favour wind and solar power for the foreseeable future.  This will mean that by 2030, we expect more countries, particularly in Europe, to evolve to these higher phases.

Too much of a good thing?

As more countries move to higher shares of VRE, it appears that there could be “too much of a good thing” – excess generation that may have to be curtailed and appears as wasteful.

The tendency is to treat this primarily as a technology problem for the power system to solve. Indeed part of the solution will lie in improvements in technology. We will need some form of energy storage to convert the excess at one time of day into necessary power system supply at another. Smart grids, especially smarter distribution systems, will be better able to manage increasing shares of renewables as well – and they too will likely have more energy storage. And finally, the growth of EVs (currently driving global battery demand) represents a huge potential source of storage and demand-side flexibility as well.

But treating this only as a technical problem is missing the economic perspective. Trillions of dollars of investment in renewables is expected in the coming years, and so there is a risk that billions of dollars of renewable electricity – zero marginal cost, zero carbon – could be wasted.  

Economists have their own tools for solving these type of problems. Many would see not a problem but an opportunity – offering surplus electricity available at a zero (or low) price to customers during periods of surplus is a means to manage this surplus efficiently.

Dynamic pricing of wholesale electricity is often proposed as a mechanism to efficiently manage peak demand of electricity – to charge more when electricity is scarce.  Not surprisingly, passing on high wholesale prices as high retail prices has been met with customer resistance, and the uptake of dynamic pricing has been rather limited.

However, if low wholesale prices were passed on as low retail prices, we would expect customers to be more accepting.  While most small customers might not be expected to respond on their own, low dynamic prices create opportunities for innovators to develop technologies and processes that would make it easy and profitable for the customer to respond.  Many of these will involve using the electricity to replace, at least in part, an energy service provided by fossil fuels. In this way, it can help hasten the decarbonisation goal of the clean energy transition.

Barriers to efficient pricing

Unfortunately for now, there are a range of barriers in our current policies that prevent electricity customers from seeing these prices: the level of electricity taxes, the design of electricity tariffs and more broadly our approach to the electricity demand side. This means there is a need to change outdated policies.

Much of our electricity policy dates from a period where wasteful consumption led to an increasing number of power plants – particularly fossil and nuclear plants. Indeed, electricity was considered to be a particularly inefficient means of achieving a level of energy service.

This has affected the way and level at which electricity is taxed, the way regulated prices are designed, and perhaps most challenging of all, how we address demand side policies and particularly electricity efficiency.

But now we are entering a different era, an era where most of the incremental electricity generation will come from wind and solar power. How should it change our taxation, rate setting and electricity efficiency policies?

Economics should guide us so that:

  1. Taxes are fixed in an efficient way, in order to distort as least as possible consumers and producers decisions
  2. Consumption is efficient, both through taxes and regulated tariffs
  3. Ensuring end-use energy consumption is carbon-efficient

Electricity taxes that exist in many countries today were set as a result of either a deliberate policy to reduce electricity consumption in energy importing countries (Europe) and/or environmentally conscious jurisdictions (Europe, California). They have also provided an easily enforceable tax base for municipalities and subnational jurisdictions. These taxes can be quite substantial, amounting to over half the cost of power for households in some European countries.

Yet many of the reasons for taxing electricity heavily are no longer valid. The emissions argument in particular makes little sense in highly decarbonised power sectors such as Sweden, France, or Switzerland.

In addition to taxation, pricing systems tend to discourage consumption regardless of how clean the production is. There are countries where, paradoxically, a high level of renewable penetration discourages the consumption of renewable energy.

Germany is probably the best known example. Although prices in the wholesale market can fall to zero when wind and solar power are particularly prolific, the end user cannot buy electricity at the real time price, but even if that were possible, it would mean paying the EEG payment (which is intended to recover the cost of renewables) which is currently 6.405 euro cents per kWh.  This means that the end user incentive to use that renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels in their own consumption is blunted.

What needs to be done instead is to encourage customer response based on the real-time price for power. Most other costs should no longer be recovered on a per kWh basis.

Getting prices right for the end consumer means also addressing regulated prices such as for networks where these are separately specified. Networks remain largely fixed cost entities in developed economies where demand has not been growing. For electricity customers, the value of the electricity network is as the provider of reliable electricity service – a value that is not directly related to the quantity of power delivered.  Increasingly, as more and more customers generate their own electricity, the value of the network is evolving to become a platform to sell some of that power or other electricity services.

Moving towards a fixed charge would recognize the value of the network service for customers. It would also alleviate concerns that customers choosing to self-generate are not contributing sufficiently to the costs of using a network they still require.

Finally, demand-side policies should be designed in a way that minimizes both costs to consumers and their carbon footprint.

As renewables continue to grow and increasingly face curtailment, the optimal policy may no longer to be to encourage electricity conservation. Instead, demand side policies that encourage carbon conservation might be more efficient.

The figure above shows how the prices charged for consuming an additional kWh of electricity in each US jurisdiction is compared to the social marginal cost of producing that electricity. Red means the social cost of production exceeds the marginal cost, suggesting that marginal prices are too low and interventions such as conservation programs could be efficient. Conversely, in the deep blue regions, electricity prices are too high, suggesting that conservation and net metering programs need to be reconsidered.

Ultimately, when marginal prices for clean electricity consumption are adjusted downwards the viability of electrification increases – which can replace other end-uses of fossil fuels.

In fact, these changing circumstances are beginning to be recognized. The California energy regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, has recently ruled that utility energy efficiency programs can include those that encourage customers to substitute electricity for fossil fuels. 

More of a good thing

The good news is that the direction for electricity investments is positive, with the share of renewables likely to grow rapidly spurred by government policies and falling costs. Yet the resultant growth of wind and solar power will lead to new integration challenges for today’s power systems and these challenges will become greater over time. 

Yet solving those challenges will also lead to economic opportunities in the energy system – opportunities to reduce costs, waste and emissions by making electricity available in substitution of fossil fuels.

Policies are central to realising these opportunities, by reforming electricity taxation, getting regulated prices right, and emphasizing carbon conservation above electricity conservation. The right price signals will encourage the innovation needed to advance the clean energy transition. And in the end, customers will have more of a “good thing”:  greater access to cheaper, clean power.

IEA

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The hydrogen revolution: A new development model that starts with the sea, the sun and the wind

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“Once again in history, energy is becoming the protagonist of a breaking phase in capitalism: a great transformation is taking place, matched by the digital technological revolution”.

The subtitle of the interesting book (“Energia. La grande trasformazione“, Laterza) by Valeria Termini, an economist at the Rome University “Roma Tre”,summarises – in a simple and brilliant way – the phase that will accompany the development of our planet for at least the next three decades,A phase starting from the awareness that technological progress and economic growth can no longer neglect environmental protection.

This awareness is now no longer confined to the ideological debates on the defence of the ecosystem based exclusively on limits, bans and prohibitions, on purely cosmetic measures such as the useless ‘Sundays on which vehicles with emissions that cause pollution are banned’, and on initiatives aimed at curbing development – considered harmful to mankind – under the banner of slogans that are as simple as they are full of damaging economic implications, such as the quest for ‘happy degrowth’.

With “degrowth” there is no happiness nor wellbeing, let alone social justice.

China has understood this and, with a view to remedying the environmental damage caused by three decades of relentless economic growth, it has not decided to take steps backwards in industrial production, by going back to the wooden plough typical of the period before the unfortunate “Great Leap Forward” of 1958, but – in its 14thFive-Year Plan (2020- 2025)-it has outlined a strategic project under the banner of “sustainable growth”, thus committing itself to continuing to build a dynamic development model in harmony with the needs of environmental protection, following the direction already taken with its 13th Five-Year Plan, which has enabled the Asian giant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12% over the last five years. This achievement could make China the first country in the world to reach the targets set in the 2012 Paris Climate Agreement, which envisage achieving ‘zero CO2 emissions’ by the end of 2030.

Also as a result of the economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Europe and the United States have decided to follow the path marked out by China which, although perceived and described as a “strategic adversary” of the West, can be considered a fellow traveller in the strategy defined by the economy of the third millennium for “turning green”.

The European Union’s ‘Green Deal’ has become an integral part of the ‘Recovery Plan’ designed to help EU Member States to emerge from the production crisis caused by the pandemic.

A substantial share of resources (47 billion euros in the case of Italy) is in fact allocated destined for the “great transformation” of the new development models, under the banner of research and exploitation of energy resources which, unlike traditional “non-renewable sources”, promote economic and industrial growth with the use of new tools capable of operating in conditions of balance with the ecosystem.

The most important of these tools is undoubtedly Hydrogen.

Hydrogen, as an energy source, has been the dream of generations of scientists because, besides being the originator of the ‘table of elements’, it is the most abundant substance on the planet, if not in the entire universe.

Its great limitation is that in order to be ‘separated’ from the oxygen with which it forms water, procedures requiring high electricity consumption are needed. The said energy has traditionally been supplied by fossil – and hence polluting- fuels.

In fact, in order to produce ‘clean’ hydrogen from water, it must be separated from oxygen by electrolysis, a mechanism that requires a large amount of energy.

The fact of using large quantities of electricity produced with traditional -and hence polluting – systems leads to the paradox that, in order to produce ‘clean’ energy from hydrogen, we keep on polluting the environment with ‘dirty’ emissions from non-renewable sources.

This paradox can be overcome with a small new industrial revolution, i.d. producing energy from the sea, the sun and the wind to power the electrolysis process that produces hydrogen.

The revolutionary strategy based on the use of ‘green’ energy to produce adequate quantities of hydrogen at an acceptable cost can be considered the key to a paradigm shift in production that can bring the world out of the pandemic crisis with positive impacts on the environment and on climate.

In the summer of last year, the European Union had already outlined an investment project worth 470 billion euros, called the “Hydrogen Energy Strategy”, aimed at equipping the EU Member States with devices for hydrogen electrolysis from renewable and clean sources, capable of ensuring the production of one million tonnes of “green” hydrogen (i.e. clean because extracted from water) by the end of 2024.

This is an absolutely sustainable target, considering that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the “total installed wind, marine and solar capacity is set to overtake natural gas by the end 2023 and coal by the end of 2024”.

A study dated February 17, 2021, carried out by the Hydrogen Council and McKinsey & Company, entitled ‘Hydrogen Insights’, shows that many new hydrogen projects are appearing on the market all over the world, at such a pace that ‘the industry cannot keep up with it’.

According to the study, 345 billion dollars will be invested globally in hydrogen research and production by the end of 2030, to which the billion euros allocated by the European Union in the ‘Hydrogen Strategy’ shall be added.

To understand how the momentum and drive for hydrogen seems to be unstoppable, we can note that the Hydrogen Council, which only four years ago had 18 members, has now grown to 109 members, research centres and companies backed by70 billion dollar of public funding provided by enthusiastic governments.

According to the Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council, Daryl Wilson, “hydrogen energy research already accounts for 20% of the success in our pathway to decarbonisation”.

According to the study mentioned above, all European countries are “betting on hydrogen and are planning to allocate billions of euros under the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan for investment in this sector”:

Spain has already earmarked 1.5 billion euros for national hydrogen production over the next two years, while Portugal plans to invest 186 billion euros of the Recovery Plan in projects related to hydrogen energy production.

Italy will have 47 billion euros available for “ecological transition”, an ambitious goal of which the government has understood the importance by deciding to set up a department with a dedicated portfolio.

Italy is well prepared and equipped on a scientific and productive level to face the challenge of ‘producing clean energy using clean energy’.

Not only are we at the forefront in the production of devices for extracting energy from sea waves – such as the Inertial Sea Waves Energy Converter (ISWEC), created thanks to research by the Turin Polytechnic, which occupies only 150 square metres of sea water and produces large quantities of clean energy, and alone reduces CO2 emissions by 68 tonnes a year, or the so-called Pinguino (Penguin), a device placed at a depth of 50 metres which produces energy without damaging the marine ecosystem – but we also have the inventiveness, culture and courage to accompany the strategy for “turning green”.

The International World Group of Rome and Eldor Corporation Spa, located in the Latium Region, have recently signed an agreement to promote projects for energy generation and the production of hydrogen from sea waves and other renewable energy sources, as part of cooperation between Europe and China under the Road and Belt Initiative.

The project will see Italian companies, starting with Eldor, working in close collaboration with the Chinese “National Ocean Technology Centre”, based in Shenzhen, to set up an international research and development centre in the field of ‘green’ hydrogen production using clean energy.

A process that is part of a global strategy which, with the contribution of Italy, its productive forces and its institutions, can help our country, Europe and the rest of the world to recover from a pandemic crisis that, once resolved, together with digital revolution, can trigger a new industrial revolution based no longer on coal or oil, but on hydrogen, which can be turned from the most widespread element in the universe into the growth engine of a new civilisation.

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Jordan, Israel, and Palestine in Quest of Solving the Energy Conundrum

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Gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean can help deliver dividends of peace to Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. New energy supply options can strengthen Jordan’s energy security and emergence as a leading transit hub of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the transformation of the port of Aqaba into a second regional energy hub would enable Jordan to re-export Israeli and Egyptian gas to Arab and Asian markets.

The possibility of the kingdom to turn into a regional energy distribution centre can bevalid through the direction of Israeli and Egyptian natural gas to Egyptian liquefaction plants and onwards to Jordan, where it could be piped via the Arab Gas Pipeline to Syria, Lebanon, and countries to the East.  The creation of an energy hub in Jordan will not only help diversify the region’s energy suppliers and routes. Equal important, it is conducive to Jordan’s energy diversification efforts whose main pillars lie in the import of gas from Israel and Egypt; construction of a dual oil and gas pipeline from Iraq; and a shift towards renewables. In a systematic effort to reduce dependence on oil imports, the kingdom swiftly proceeds with exploration of its domestic fields like the Risha gas field that makes up almost 5% of the national gas consumption. Notably, the state-owned National Petroleum Company discovered in late 2020 promising new quantities in the Risha gas field that lies along Jordan’s eastern border with Iraq.

In addition, gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean can be leveraged to create interdependencies between Israel, Jordan, and Palestine with the use of gas and solar for the generation of energy, which, in turn, can power desalination plants to generate shared drinking water. Eco-Peace Middle East, an organization that brings together environmentalists from Jordan, Israel and Palestine pursues the Water-Energy Nexus Project that examines the technical and economic feasibility of turning Israeli, Palestinian, and potentially Lebanese gas in the short-term, and Jordan’s solar energy in the long-term into desalinated water providing viable solutions to water scarcity in the region. Concurrently, Jordan supplies electricity to the Palestinians as means to enhancing grid connectivity with neighbours and promoting regional stability.

In neighbouring Israel, gas largely replaced diesel and coal-fired electricity generation feeding about 85% of Israeli domestic energy demand. It is estimated that by 2025 all new power plants in Israel will use renewable energy resources for electricity generation. Still, gas will be used to produce methane, ethanol and hydrogen, the fuel of the future that supports transition to clean energy. The coronavirus pandemic inflicted challenges and opportunities upon the gas market in Israel. A prime opportunity is the entry of American energy major Chevron into the Israeli gas sector with the acquisition of American Noble Energy with a deal valued $13 billion that includes Noble’s$8 billion in debt.

The participation of Chevron in Israeli gas fields strengthens its investment portfolio in the Eastern Mediterranean and fortifies the position of Israel as a reliable gas producer in the Arab world. This is reinforced by the fact that the American energy major participates in the exploration of energy assets in Iraqi Kurdistan, the UAE, and the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Israel’s normalization agreement with the UAE makes Chevron’s acquisition of Noble Energy less controversial and advances Israel’s geostrategic interests and energy export outreach to markets in Asia via Gulf countries.

The reduction by 50% in Egyptian purchase of gas from Israel is a major challenge caused by the pandemic. Notably, a clause in the Israel-Egypt gas contract allows up to 50% decrease of Egyptian purchase of gas from Israel if Brent Crude prices fall below $50 per barrel. At another level, it seems that Israel should make use of Egypt’s excess liquefaction capacity in the Damietta and Idku plants rather than build an Israeli liquefaction plant at Eilat so that liquefied Israeli gas is shipped through the Arab Gas Pipeline to third markets.

When it comes to the West Bank and Gaza, energy challenges remain high. Palestine has the lowest GDP in the region, but it experiences rapid economic growth, leading to an annual average 3% increase of electricity demand. Around 90% of the total electricity consumption in the Palestinian territories is provided by Israel and the remaining 10% is provided by Jordan and Egypt as well as rooftop solar panels primarily in the West Bank. Palestinian cities can be described as energy islands with limited integration into the national grid due to lack of high-voltage transmission lines that would connect north and south West Bank. Because of this reality, the Palestinian Authority should engage the private sector in energy infrastructure projects like construction of high-voltage transmission and distribution lines that will connect north and south of the West Bank. The private sector can partly finance infrastructure costs in a Public Private Partnership scheme and guarantee smooth project execution.

Fiscal challenges however outweigh infrastructure challenges with most representative the inability of the Palestinian Authority to collect electricity bill payments from customers. The situation forced the Palestinian Authority to introduce subsidies and outstanding payments are owed by Palestinian distribution companies to the Israeli Electricity Corporation which is the largest supplier of electricity. As consequence 6% of the Palestinian budget is dedicated to paying electricity debts and when this does not happen, the amount is deducted from the taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority.

The best option for Palestine to meet electricity demand is the construction of a solar power plant with 300 MW capacity in Area C of the West Bank and another solar power plant with 200 MW capacity across the Gaza-Israel border. In addition, the development of the Gaza marine gas field would funnel gas in the West Bank and Gaza and convert the Gaza power plant to burn gas instead of heavy fuel. The recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Palestinian Investment Fund, the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) and Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) for the development of the Gaza marine field, the construction of all necessary infrastructure, and the transportation of Palestinian gas to Egypt is a major development. Coordination with Israel can unlock the development of the Palestinian field and pave the way for the resolution of the energy crisis in Gaza and also supply gas to a new power plant in Jenin.

Overall, the creation of an integrating energy economy between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine can anchor lasting and mutually beneficial economic interdependencies and deliver dividends of peace. All it takes is efficient leadership that recognizes the high potentials.

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The EV Effect: Markets are Betting on the Energy Transition

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The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has calculated that USD 2 trillion in annual investment will be required to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement in the coming three years.

Electromobility has a major role to play in this regard – IRENA’s transformation pathway estimates that 350 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be needed by 2030, kickstarting developments in the industry and influencing share values as manufacturers, suppliers and investors move to capitalise on the energy transition.

Today, around eight million EVs account for a mere 1% of all vehicles on the world’s roads, but 3.1 million were sold in 2020, representing a 4% market share. While the penetration of EVs in the heavy duty (3.5+ tons) vehicles category is much lower, electric trucks are expected to become more mainstream as manufacturers begin to offer new models to meet increasing demand.

The pace of development in the industry has increased the value of stocks in companies such as Tesla, Nio and BYD, who were among the highest performers in the sector in 2020. Tesla produced half a million cars last year, was valued at USD 670 billion, and produced a price-to-earnings ratio that vastly outstripped the industry average, despite Volkswagen and Renault both selling significantly more electric vehicles (EV) than Tesla in Europe in the last months of 2020.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely this gap will remain as volumes continue to grow, and with EV growth will come increased demand for batteries. The recent success of EV sales has largely been driven by the falling cost of battery packs – which reached 137 USD/kWh in 2020. The sale of more than 35 million vehicles per year will require a ten-fold increase in battery manufacturing capacity from today’s levels, leading to increased shares in battery manufacturers like Samsung SDI and CATL in the past year.

This rising demand has also boosted mining stocks, as about 80 kg of copper is required for a single EV battery. As the energy transition gathers pace, the need for copper will extend beyond electric cars to encompass electric grids and other motors. Copper prices have therefore risen by 30% in recent months to USD 7 800 per tonne, pushing up the share prices of miners such as Freeport-McRoran significantly.

Finally, around 35 million public charging stations will be needed by 2030, as well as ten times more private charging stations, which require an investment in the range of USD 1.2 – 2.4 trillion. This has increased the value of charging companies such as Fastnet and Switchback significantly in recent months.

Skyrocketing stock prices – ahead of actual deployment – testify to market confidence in the energy transition; however, investment opportunities remain scarce. Market expectations are that financing will follow as soon as skills and investment barriers fall. Nevertheless, these must be addressed without delay to attract and accelerate the investment required to deliver on the significant promise of the energy transition.

IRENA

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