Increased spending on renewable energy infrastructure is a welcome move on the path to net zero, but the world needs to recognise that it needs to be accompanied by significant investment to upgrade ageing power networks.
Earlier this year, the world looked on in shock as Texas’ power grid was brought to its knees by some of the worst winter storms the state has ever seen. This summer, intense heat in the Pacific Northwest and New York meant businesses and households were urged to conserve energy to avoid widespread blackouts.
In Europe, last month’s deadly floods cut power to hundreds of thousands in Western Germany. Earlier in the year, the EU said a power supply failure in Romania, coupled with grid disruption and a lack of operating reserves in France, nearly caused a Europe-wide blackout.
These incidents have demonstrated vividly the importance of having a secure and stable supply of energy. But the ongoing risk of extreme weather events is far from the only challenge we face as the world transitions to net zero. As the energy sector continues to strengthen the resilience and efficiency of the world’s power infrastructure, the road ahead could be a difficult one.
Europe and the US have some of the world’s oldest energy networks. Their cables have exceeded the average life expectancy, and utilities and policymakers have agreed for years that aging power grid infrastructures need significant upgrades to withstand future challenges. What’s more, electricity demand continues to rise, driven by population growth, emerging markets and new usages such as electric vehicles. With electricity demand expected to grow by a further 20 per cent by 2030, the need to modernise these grids has never been more profound. This growth isn’t just restricted to Europe or the US – every country needs to invest in power grid upgrades.
Part of the answer is to build more connected, less centralised grids that enable countries to collaborate and share energy reserves when necessary. Not only does this strengthen resilience against major weather events, it also helps solve blackouts because neighbouring countries can export part of their surplus supply across borders through interconnectors.
Smarter grid management is also crucial. Advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, monitoring and ongoing digitalisation will help drive more efficient power distribution. Underground cables, meanwhile, offer greater resilience and lower maintenance needs, and are less vulnerable to severe weather conditions.
It’s not just about rolling out new infrastructure and technology – it’s also important to extend the lifespan of existing infrastructure. This reduces costs while minimising the disruption and environmental impact of replacing it. Better asset management techniques also allow for smarter investments in the replacement of existing systems.
The fact that policymakers around the world have earmarked electrification as a crucial part of the world’s drive to clean energy is also intensifying the need for new infrastructure. The refreshed EU Green Deal prioritises energy system integration and offshore renewables as vehicles to deliver cleaner energy. COP26’s Energy Transition Council also wants to double the rate of investment in clean power by 2030. Meanwhile in the US, the Biden administration has jumpstarted new offshore wind projects in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico.
These plans are welcome steps in the right direction, but before we boost the production of renewable energy, we first need to focus on future-proofing the power grid. This is a critical step in ensuring growing populations can enjoy a stable supply of this electricity.
The wider electricity supply chain also faces challenges – none more acute than global copper shortages. Because copper is needed to manufacture electricity cables, a stable supply of the mineral is critical for global electrification. Demand for copper has more than doubled in the past 25 years and is expected to nearly double again in the next 10 years. Copper reserves are struggling to meet such demand, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned of a “looming mismatch” between mineral supply and climate ambition. This is already driving up the price of copper, which pushes up the costs to cable manufacturers, electricity generators, network operators and ultimately consumers.
The industry can do its bit to help offset these rising costs, such as recycling copper in obsolete cables where possible. But it’s changes throughout the copper supply chain that can make the biggest difference. The IEA has outlined a range of solutions to help strengthen mineral security, including diversifying sources of supply, innovating at all points along the value chain, and strengthening international collaboration. Furthermore, the alternative use of aluminium conductors has historically been promoted by several network operators.
We know the challenges. Extreme weather events are only going to become more frequent. Power networks are outdated and must be improved in terms of capacity, flexibility and resilience. And global copper shortages add a whole new challenge as electricity demand continues to grow. But there are solutions, and we need to act now if we’re to ensure electricity can be delivered to all corners of the world securely, reliably, and efficiently.
Frédéric Lesur is grid engineering design lab manager at Nexans.
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