Transforming the European Energy System. Interview with Jacobs' Global Director for Power & Energy.
Transforming the European energy system will be one of the cornerstones of achieving the EU’s ambitious climate target of carbon neutrality by 2050 as energy production accounts for 75% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions.
We spoke to Jacobs' Global Director for Power & Energy, Pete Adams, about what incentives are needed to be in place to build a more sustainable and reliable energy system.
Q1: What is needed to see fully integrated energy systems?
To make the biggest impact and address key issues facing renewable energy, such as reliability and cost, the energy system needs to be looked at holistically. With a focus on combining technology solutions and addressing supply and demand to reduce the amount of capital investment needed to upgrade the existing infrastructure.
If we look at technology, this can be used to better manage the grid. For example, virtual transmission lines can be used to control the time of day that assets are used so the cost of electricity can be spread more widely, and peak time demand goes down. But for this to be effective we need people’s energy consumption habits to change. New tariffs could be implemented to encourage people to avoid using peak times for their energy use, and therefore spread it over wider periods of time. This will have the effect of reducing the level of infrastructure needed and hence reduce overall capital investment.
There also needs to be greater opportunities for people to generate electricity themselves, and feed this into the system.
Q2: What role will hydrogen play in decarbonizing the key sectors that may be difficult to electrify, such as transport and buildings?
As we continue to successfully progress with the deployment of renewable energy technologies, the available energy will often not be ready at the right time or in the right place, as it’s often created or stored further away from where the demand is. Significant research and investment is going into improving transmission and distribution infrastructure, storage technologies and how we manage our own energy through technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.
But this is where hydrogen could become a game-changer, as it has highly effective medium and long-term storage capabilities. It’s also more effective than batteries for supplying energy to larger transportation solutions like long-haul heavy goods, shipping and rail, as battery storage is only commercially viable for short periods of time.
Because hydrogen can be used in a similar way to fossil fuels the transition of its implementation will be less extreme. But significant investment will be needed to make this work effectively and ensure that production is done sustainably. An example of this is where we’re currently blending hydrogen in our gas networks.
Q3: How can the development and deployment of key technologies like Power to X (the processes that turn electricity into heat, hydrogen or synthetic fuels) and green hydrogen be systematically scaled up?
New technologies offer a multitude of opportunities across all sectors. Importantly, in certain sectors, it will enable a smoother and more economical transition to a zero-carbon society. Technologies such as electrolysers and fuel cells, as well as processes to synthesize hydrogen to new products and fuels will have a critical role to play in the energy transition and the continued development of circular business models. To scale them up and ensure commercial viability, collective action and planning will be essential across sectors.
In the past, energy generation projects were often commissioned in isolation. Moving forward the relationship between energy vectors of electricity, heating and transport will be more integrated. We expect to see governments playing an important role in enabling this, initially through demonstrator programs, followed by policy implementation and new business models.
In the UK, the concept of hydrogen hubs is in the early design stages, and these are being anchored by public sector demand (transport) and energy intensive sectors. While there are significant commercial and technology challenges to hubs, the direction of travel and opportunity is clear. In mainland Europe we are seeing energy parks being proposed, bringing together industry and large commercial properties to manage distributed energy resources through Power to X and digital capabilities. The aim is to create an overall carbon and capital saving for key technologies to be deployed at a local and strategic scale.
This will enable the risks to be spread, and ensure their usage becomes more viable. It will also help to create a momentum that should bring down overall costs, making energy more affordable and more widely available, and ultimately reduce emissions and the impact of climate change.
Q4: Your brand promise at Jacobs is 'challenging today by reinventing tomorrow', what are the core challenges of transforming the energy system and what innovative solutions do you see on the horizon?
As Global Director for Power & Energy, my role is about working with our clients and teams across the world to develop strategies and implement projects that integrate an optimal mix of low energy generation, storage solutions and electricity infrastructure to achieve a successful energy transition that reduces emissions, supports reliability and strengthens livability outcomes for our communities.
The biggest challenge right now is that the energy industry has never seen anything of this scale and size. The industry is stretched to maximum capacity, but the demand is increasing at a phenomenal rate, and the industry needs to grow. At Jacobs we can help tackle this by applying the experience we have from other sectors. It’s about more than just having the right technical knowledge, it’s also about being able to take a strong programmatic approach and deliver huge projects at scale.
One area where we’re pushing the boundaries is our work on developing new nuclear power and technology. As one of few companies which can design nuclear power reactors, Jacobs is at the forefront of the development of both Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors. The most transformational future source of energy could be fusion reactors, which replicate the nuclear reaction that takes place in the sun and stars. If this can be harnessed, it will create almost limitless carbon free energy, without leaving behind long-lived waste.
But in parallel to developing innovations it’s about bringing multiple stakeholders together. Historically, individual countries took ownership of investing in a diverse mix of low carbon energies, but the scale is now so vast that we need collective action and joint systems and policies if we want to stick to a 1.5°C target.
If we don’t achieve this target the overwhelming consensus is that there will be significant impacts for human society and natural habitats across the globe.