“Right now renewable energy is still in the single digits in Europe. That’s a disaster”, says Marko Delimar, Professor at the University of Zagreb and Chair of the European Public Policy Group of the engineers association IEEE, the largest professional association in the world. According to Delimar, the energy transition is still at a very early stage. Technologists, he says, in an interview with Energy Post, have an important task: “We need to “demystify” energy. The energy transition will require a major effort. For this we need consensus in Europe. We need to start speaking the same language.”
“Europe will have to make some very important decisions regarding energy. Our energy sector is still very much based on fossil fuels. We have to move to a clean, CO2-neutral system. All technologists are aware of that.”
Marko Delimar, who heads the European Public Policy working group of the IEEE – a global assocation of engineers and other technologists with over 400,000 members in 160 countries – is committed to, but also concerned about, the energy transition Europe is going through. “If we get it wrong, we could have issues with reliability. Or run up very high bills. That would undermine the transition that needs to be made.”
Delimar – who describes himself as “engineer, educator and researcher, in that order” – believes that it is crucial for technologists to speak directly with policymakers. “It’s important that policymakers don’t get their information only from Member States or interest groups.” The IEEE (pronounced I-triple E), says Delimar, is “technology-neutral. We produce peer-reviewed information and are involved in the development of various standards. And we are not tied to a particular geography. We are global – so we also know what’s going on elsewhere in the world.”
“We have to stop talking about smart grid in terms of only electricity. Gas and heating should be part of a smart energy network”
This is why the IEEE has started its European Public Policy group, to engage directly with policymakers. “There was an enormous amount of interest from within the IEEE to be part of this group”, Delimar notes. On 10 November, the IEEE will be hosting, for the first time, an “Energy Summit” in Brussels, where technologists and policymakers will get together to talk about the practicalities of the energy transition. Delimar says the initiative has been received positively in Brussels. “We have found that policymakers feel a need to speak directly with technologists who are unbiased.”
According to Delimar, who is, among many other things, a member of the Steering Committee of the European Technology Platform for Electricity Networks of the Future (better known as Smart Grids ETP), it’s important that “we start speaking the same language” when it comes to energy. “Energy is like football. Everybody thinks they know everything about it. But just because I watched a few games, I am not David Beckham.”
“Cities connected to multiple grids should have the ability to transfer energy from one system to the other. This could be much more significant than isolated storages on a single grid”
This does not mean, he adds, that technologists know better than anyone else. “We need different voices to speak out and come to a common solution. I hear some people say we need 100% reliability, others want 100% renewables. But sometimes people forget that you cannot reach these goals without unacceptable costs. We are all striving for greener, cleaner energy, but it will take time, it will require technological progress and it will come at a price. A colleague of mine often says, are you ready to skip your pizza on a cloudy day? That’s a super-simplification of course. But the question is are we as consumers prepared to change our system? Wait for a couple of minutes before we make our coffee when our coffee machine tells us so?”
Delimar believes it is policymakers who will decide in the end where we will go. “It does depend on their decisions.”
There are a number of concrete issues that Delimar wants to talk about with policymakers. As a smart grid specialist, he warns that the term “smart grid” does not really mean anything. “There are different issues involved here. It’s about making transmission and distribution systems work better. It’s about smart metering. And about demand response – about making our appliances able to adapt to market signals.”
If there is one important point that Delimar wants to stress, is that “smart grids” should not only be about electricity. “We have to stop looking at smart grid as electricity network. It has to grow towards a smart energy system. This should include all the utilities coming to the consumer – thermal, gas, even water. All combined can make the system much smarter.”
“We have been postponing a decision about a supergrid because it’s a great cost”
The combination of different networks can lead to important cost savings, for instance when it comes to storage. “Storage is important, but we have to go for smart storage. Electricity can’t be stored directly, so you have to convert it. That leads to losses. If you combine thermal, gas and electricity networks, you can minimise the number of conversions.”
Delimar says “We have to go towards integrated energy systems. Cities connected to multiple grids should have the ability to transfer energy from one system to the other. This could be much more significant than isolated storages on a single grid.” Many cities in Europe, he notes, have networks available that can serve this purpose.
At the same time, Delimar says we urgently need to develop some form of “supergrid”. “The majority of the population is in the middle of Europe. But the density of renewable energies is low. If you want to harvest enough, you need large spaces. You can have offshore wind in the north, solar systems in the south, but we need to bring this energy to the centre. We have been postponing a decision about this beause it’s a great cost.”
“I don’t think we are at the stage when we can put power plants out of commission. Shutting them down at this stage would be irresponsible.”
There may be different options of what such a “supergrid” should look like, says Delimar. “Some people have proposed an Overlay DC Network on top of or parallel with the existing AC network. That may be a good idea, but it will require significant investment and will take time. The way it’s developing now is little by little. Not really a supergrid, although it may be where the supergrid starts.”
For Delimar, the idea of supergrid does not contradict the trend towards more decentralisation, which is also happening. “There are a number of successful decentralised stories out there, which we should continue. We have to do both micro and macro. Renewable energy is still in single digits. That’s a disaster. If we want energy systems to be CO2-neutral, not to hurt the environment, we have to do it all – rooftops, backyards, but also faraway places.”
Delimar believes there is still a long way to go in the energy transition. “I don’t think we are at the stage when we can put power plants out of commission. We need to modernise our hydropower plants and make our fossil-fuel plants more efficient and possibly CO2-neutral. Shutting them down at this stage would be irresponsible.”
“I’m not a big fan of helping one industry over the other. But transport is a large user of fossil fuels and it is changing only very slowly”
As to Silicon Valley players coming in and shaking up the energy market, Delimar says: “Why not if they can do it? As long as they play by the rules. We need good policy, good regulation. If these are in place, we need not fear change.”
One of the slowest sectors to change has been transportation. “The development of electric vehicles has been much slower than many had hoped for.”, says Delimar. He feels that policymakers should consider putting incentives in place to promote electric vehicles (EVs). “I’m not a big fan of helping one industry over the other. But transport is a large user of fossil fuels and it is changing only very slowly. I think we need to send clear signals out there that things should start moving faster.”
In another interview, Delimar said that “a consolidation of all major players and energy stakeholders in Europe” is needed to make the energy transition possible. Does he believe we need a kind of Apollo, man-on-the-moon program for this? Delimar: “Energy has often been mystified. Technologists need to speak truth about energy in simple words. Consumers are more and more interested. Energy even influences their votes. So we have to tell consumers and policymakers simple truths. We have to demystify energy.”
He adds that “the energy transition will require a major effort. For this we need consensus in Europe. And we need an overall energy policy to grow renewable energy from single digits to the majority. That’s perhaps where the idea of an Apollo program comes in.”
The IEEE energy Summit on 10 November in Brussels will discuss energy policies and initiatives to enable the transition to a low carbon economy. It will provide three panel debates, each including both policymakers and technologists, to address the following questions:
- Enabling the energy transition: When will green become the new normal?
- How reliable is reliable enough?
- Green, yes! Reliable, yes! But who pays?