We can cut the cost of net zero by making more of what we already have

Taco Engelaar
22 January, 24

While not without controversy, the conclusion of COP28 marked a significant global acknowledgement of the need to move away from fossil fuels. At the end of the hottest year on record, we saw tangible moves during the conference to set this ambition in motion, including a pledge signed by over 100 countries to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. But as focus shifts to how we can actively achieve these goals to accelerate the global journey to net zero, a significant roadblock threatens to slam on the brakes: cost.

Recent projections suggest that the UK alone will require a £900 billion investment in energy supply to effectively achieve net zero by 2050. Plans to free up capacity for more renewable energy in the grid centre largely around a need for net new infrastructure as well as extensive existing network upgrades, with initiatives like  National Grid’s ‘Great Grid Upgrade’ leading the way. These plans, while a crucial part of the energy transition, come with a hefty price tag. As we stare down this gargantuan cost, we’re missing a critical opportunity to reduce the outlay by making the most of the infrastructure we already have.

Leaders who are genuinely committed to driving the clean energy transition forward must recognise the benefit of taking a multi-faceted approach. Recent technological advancements – including AI and digital modelling – offer the potential to help us change gears and redirect our efforts to get to net zero faster. By unlocking new ways for us to harness more from our existing infrastructure, they are offering leaders an accelerated course which could cut the cost of reaching net zero, without cutting any corners. 

Uncovering the hidden potential within our existing grid

One of the biggest obstacles to the clean energy transition in England and Wales is a perceived lack of capacity within the grid to safely run more renewable energy. But this barrier – which has prompted leaders to prioritise building new infrastructure to create the necessary additional capacity – is, in part, a fallacy. Hiding in plain sight within our existing infrastructure there is a significant amount of latent capacity which, if put to work, could help shrink the backlog of renewable energy projects waiting to join the grid by enabling higher levels of energy to be safely run.

The largely manual nature of traditional line rating methods, which are used to assess energy capacity within our power lines, means that this latent capacity has remained widely overlooked. Without the help of AI and modelling technology, it is difficult to accurately identify latent capacity at scale. As a result, utilities have rightly defaulted to an abundance of caution, traditionally setting a conservative maximum standard for how much current utilities can run through power lines. This has unfortunately created a double-edged sword where the consequence is that the industry has, until now, effectively forced the renewable energy transition to rely on costly new infrastructure to build additional capacity. 

However, advances in technologies like digital modelling and AI are offering the tools to change this by enabling utilities to instead perform line rating digitally – meaning that utilities can identify where it’s safe to run higher levels of current, thus making room for more renewable energy across the existing grid. By modelling entire utility networks at scale using data sources such as LiDAR and satellite imagery, technology is unlocking the ability to surface many pockets of incremental latent capacity that in aggregate, can drive a step change in pace for the clean energy transition. This gives utilities the visibility to accurately analyse capacity and identify areas where there is potential to safely connect and run more renewable energy. For example, when used to conduct digital line rating by leading Australian utility, Essential Energy, the Neara platform – which creates a ‘digital twin’ model of energy infrastructure – found that they could safely double the energy capacity across their existing network.

While there is of course not an endless abundance of capacity within our existing infrastructure, the precision afforded by digital line rating can help us to optimise our use of what we do have. This will ultimately help to defer and reduce the overall need for building new infrastructure, ensuring that net zero need not be prohibitively costly. 

Adapting our use of the grid to meet evolving needs

Another way that technology and innovation can help us to more sustainably manage the transition with what we already have is by helping to adapt our use of the grid to meet evolving energy needs. As an increasing number of consumers begin turning to more sustainable practices – such as running electric vehicles and generating their own energy using solar panels – we’re demanding more and more of the grid. Meanwhile, the switch to more renewable energy is making supply more variable. Greater grid flexibility is needed to ensure balance can be maintained and rising demand met, without relying exclusively on new infrastructure to support renewable energy transmission.

There are a number of solutions helping to facilitate this flexibility, enabling utilities and consumers to work together to flex energy supply and usage. Long-duration energy storage solutions, including thermal batteries and hydrogen storage, have already earned significant support from the UK government, offering a way for renewable energy generated by consumers to be stored during lower energy demand and released when it peaks. Elsewhere, solutions are emerging to facilitate the underlying collaboration between utilities and consumers to increase grid flexibility. One example of this is Electron, a flexibility marketplace which is helping operators, suppliers and consumers to manage renewable energy use and supply, making it easier for this to be done flexibly and at scale across existing networks. 

As we continue to push on towards net zero, leaders must ensure they are considering all available routes, harnessing the wealth of innovation that promises to make the road ahead smoother. We must stop and ensure that we’re making enough of the infrastructure we already have – it could help get us there faster, and at a fraction of the cost. 

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