By Luis Crespo
Luis Crespo is president of the Spanish Association of the Solar Thermoelectric Industry (Protermosolar) since June. He previously worked as Secretary-General of the association. PhD in Aeronautical Engineering and with a degree in Sociology, his professional activity includes companies like CASA, Interatom/Siemens, Asinel, and Aentec. He is also director of the Ciemat’s Renewable Energies Institute.
It is undeniable that the global energy model has transformed thanks to the emergence of renewable energies that are progressively changing the power generation mix, since the new electric capacity installed worldwide is, and has been for several years, mostly renewable.
In countries such as Spain, it will practically account for 100 percent of the power installed from now until 2030. This is an irreversible trend for two crucial reasons: the deal signed at the Paris Conference, in which most countries in the world agreed to take measures to mitigate the effects of climate change; and for purely economic reasons as currently several “natural flow” renewable technologies are just as competitive, or even more so, than conventional technologies.
However, if we really want to contribute to alleviating climate change, we cannot leave everything up to the market forces and focus the immediate future efforts on the cost of the different energy technologies. This entirely economistic approach can once again open the doors to the need for backup conventional energies.
This is where the manageability of renewable technologies to monitor the demand curve turns especially valuable. Unlike water or gas, electricity cannot be stored on a large scale. It must be generated at the moment of use, for which supply must be maintained in constant balance with demand. The more installed capacity in intermittent generation is commissioned, the greater the probability of facing situations of unbalance will be. When more capacity is needed – whether as a result of economic growth, as is the case of emerging economies, or as a consequence of decommissioning old power plants in industrialized countries – penetration of intermittent generation will need to be supported by new fossil-fueled plants (unfeasible is we comply with the COP21) or by manageable renewables.
This is why storing electricity surplus derived from a large penetration of “natural flow” renewables is starting to be considered as a pressing need in the face of oversupply problems induced by non-flexible renewable generation in most energy systems. Nonetheless, the only sustainable solution for the future generation mix should prevent the causes of the problem, instead of solving its effects.
Thermo-solar plants with storage seem to be, so far, the best option. In addition to their added value to the power system in terms of operation and capacity, they add inertial stability to the grid and have a very positive macroeconomic impact.
If the installation of new capacities is tackled just by using the criterion of prioritizing technologies with lower generation cost and making others pay for the back-up generation, we will end up with a very ineffective electric system. What should be taken into account for every new power plant incorporated to the system is the value it brings thereto in terms of operation and capacity, instead of exclusively focusing on which technology offers the cheapest Kwh.
Although value studies are country-specific, in California, for example, they have proved that paying a new photovoltaic plant 5 cents per kWh has the same effect on the electric system’s total cost that paying a thermosolar plant with storage 10 cents. These results correspond with a 33 percent renewable penetration, and the difference would be much larger if it reaches just 40 percent.
Manageable renewables: hydro, biomass, and thermosolar, represent the solution in terms of backup due to their manageability. Their contribution needs to be much larger to reach that future emissions-free electric system. All renewables have highly positive macroeconomic and employment impacts, mostly biomass and thermosolar which, in addition, offers great opportunities for our companies in global markets, where Spain still prevails as a leader.
This is why it is unadvisable to give up planning new thermosolar plants in Spain, which costs have significantly reduced in the past years. The moment has come to recognize that it is not enough to establish global goals regarding the participation of renewable energies in 2030 and 2050. Linking the required high contribution of manageable generation technologies to these goals has become a necessity. Otherwise, a CO2-free generation system will not be feasible and any new investment in intermittent renewables will seriously jeopardize its income.
Regarding the development of renewables, we must change the current shortsighted approach of “cost” for the complete approach of “value” for future investments in power plants. This will give rise to a more balanced proportion between intermittent renewable energies and flexible renewable energies, which is the only sustainable path for a true energy transition.