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Fuel-based power for a rapidly decarbonised distributed energy system

Guest blog by Volker Schulte, Senior Industry Expert at Triton Partners and Advisory Board member of IPG

Wind turbines in frozen landscape. The recent blackouts in Texas illustrates the true value of grid resilience as we transition to renewable energy system

What recent events in Texas, and California, demonstrate are the shortcomings of highly-centralised power systems and the true value of grid resilience and flexibility. When our energy systems are pushed to their limits, and centralised power generation sources are taken offline, the impact is felt at a much greater scale. If, however, we have a more distributed and diverse energy supply, we then lower our reliability on fewer large power sources and therefore limit the number of those affected when one or more of these fail.

Now, as we increasingly transition to an energy system powered by wind and solar, we are also transitioning to this more distributed model. This, however, comes with its own set of challenges owing to the intermittency of these renewable power sources. Although there are a number of reasons at work, such as freezing turbines, high heat and power demand from cold temperatures, shortage of gas, and power lines likely surrendering to the cold, the blackouts in Texas give us some picture of what can happen if large scale renewables cannot deliver adequate flexible power reserve in our increasingly electrified world.

Flexible power sources are crucial for a sustainable and secure grid

Through electrification of transportation and heating, expanding business use and global growth, we are simultaneously increasing the demand on our electricity grid and fundamentally changing the way it needs to operate. The growth of wind and solar, with their intrinsically intermittent outputs, is not only disrupting our conventional methods for grid balancing, but also placing greater reliability on dispatchable and flexible power sources.

Traditionally, this role of flexible power is provided by diesel generators and natural gas peakers, due to their availability, transportability and, ultimately, low cost. But clearly, the associated carbon and pollutant emissions mean that fossil fuel generation is increasingly no longer fit for purpose. As a result, more and more, large scale grid-connected batteries are providing this back-up power reserve. Batteries will grow exponentially, but alone they will not be able to economically balance the grid and provide adequate dispatchable power for intermittent renewables. Without fuel-based power, this would require massive overbuild of renewable and storage infrastructure.

Biofuels, e-fuels and hydrogen-based fuels like ammonia are another form of energy storage that can help us address the challenges of intermittent generation. These alternative fuels have the ability to balance those weekly or seasonal variations more cost-effectively than batteries, and are therefore equally valuable in achieving a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system for all.

By having multiple sources of different types of power generation, we are increasing our grid resilience and therefore lessening the chance for wider system failure. The challenge we now face is how to accelerate the wider adoption of alternative fuels, and support greater growth of large-scale wind and solar infrastructure.

“Flameless Combustion” offers a potential solution for rapid decarbonisation

The timelines to abundant availability of alternative fuels are uncertain and likely to be geographically specific. With existing power generation products relatively fuel-specific, switching to hydrogen or biofuels is a high-risk investment, particularly when those renewable-fuelled technologies are significantly more expensive than their current alternative.

Intelligent Power Generation (IPG) recognise the crucial role of fuel-flexibility in de-risking the switch to renewable fuels, and have spent the last five years developing a power generation product that not only provides that flexibility but is also compatible with our clean air ambitions and makes economic sense for businesses.

IPG’s breakthrough in flameless combustion means their Flameless Ceramic Turbine can literally “burn” any fuel, no matter the quality or calorific value, and it does so without producing pollutant emissions. Flameless combustion delivers high operating temperatures that combine with their novel ceramic waste-heat recovery process to secure high fuel efficiencies, all of which with the aim to deliver a levelized cost of energy comparable to a diesel generator.

IPG’s deep-tech innovation not only offers an alternative way for divesting from diesel in fuel-reliant industries. But, with an energy storage medium able to sustainably and cost-effectively manage the intermittency of wind and solar, it could also support greater growth of this infrastructure globally. This, in turn, has the potential for accelerating global decarbonisation – a goal that is crucial to supporting the prevention of climate-related extreme weather events and the subsequent impact that has on our energy security.



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