The renewables sector relies on modular power to facilitate integration and safeguard investment, and protecting the long-term integrity of renewables infrastructure is vital if the industry is to succeed, says Marcus Saul

Renewable energy might finally have turned a corner. The cost-of-energy debate has been largely answered with unsubsidized wind power now a viable possibility.

According to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of energy for photovoltaic power fell 20 per cent in the last five years and today is on a par with conventional energy in many US states and parts of Europe and Asia.

The cost of solar and onshore wind is also expected to drop by an additional 59 and 26 per cent respectively in the next ten years, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Aggreko modular gas power station in Myanmar
Aggreko modular gas power station in Myanmar

The effects of this trend are starting to impact the entire renewables supply chain. Increased global demand for renewable energy infrastructure, particularly transmission and energy storage systems, is leading to greater scrutiny on long-term planning for renewable projects, with commissioning and contingency planning top of the agenda.

Competition will increase as the market takes off and as scope to improve the performance of technology and infrastructure as a whole is explored. This will underpin strong growth in the renewables sector.

However, with change comes great responsibility. Planning ahead is critical to ensuring that local and national energy infrastructure has the capacity, flexibility and capability to deliver the level and speed of change required to account for both increased decarbonization and urbanization.

Making allowances for change is a prerequisite, whether you’re building out your grid to allow for new renewable capacity or renewing a more mature transmission network.

The renewables sector relies on modular power, temperature control and humidification technology to achieve those goals and safeguard investment, and protecting the long-term integrity of renewables infrastructure is vital if the industry is to succeed.

Generation type, plant size and location are the major factors that determine how developers plan ahead, and are particularly relevant to transmission extensions or installations for renewable energy integration. Success relies on having a robust plan in place to overcome the intermittency of renewables and ensure the delivery of reliable and stable power to national grids. Indeed, global spending on transmission system infrastructure for renewable energy integration is expected to grow by 27 per cent to $46.7 billion in the next eight years.

Modular power plays a key role throughout
Modular power plays a key role throughout the lifecycle of a hydropower plant

Incorporating modular systems into a project’s long-term strategy helps to keep infrastructure flexible and maintainable. It also helps developers secure consent and meet key milestones, as well as mitigate the risk of downtime and offset the many effects caused by the environment. Missing deadlines or not achieving target levels of productivity can make or break a project, and damage the industry’s reputation, with considerable implications for future investment and growth.

It is no small task. Many countries are facing huge costs associated with maintaining and upgrading their energy networks. In the US, for example, modernizing infrastructure would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. According to the US Department of Energy, nearly 75 per cent of transmission lines and transformers are 25 years old or older, and outdated infrastructure is frequently cited by commentators as the biggest threat to US energy supply. Add a layer of complexity, in the form of a transition to renewable energy sources, and the importance of contingency planning becomes clear.

Planning, consent, and construction present the greatest challenges for most renewable developments. For planning permission to be granted, feasibility studies and testing of equipment are required both on- and offshore, which demand a reliable power supply.

In the case of wind power, a reliable and constant supply of electricity is also needed to power Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) devices, which collate information on wind speed and bird activity at a proposed site. This information informs the planning process and can take up to a year to collect, so any delays due to power disruptions will have substantial consequences for their ability to meet deadlines. At Aggreko, we position a mobile generator offshore and, with our remote monitoring capabilities, we can resolve any potential equipment inefficiencies or failures in the system before they get to the point of jeopardizing power reliability.

Once through the lengthy planning process, construction tends to come with load testing requirements, which could even exceed initial capacity requirements for a site. Wind turbines are currently being manufactured to generate 8 MW, but designed to meet 15 MW, to allow for a rise in demand in the next ten years. This gives customers the ability to test for higher capacity to enable them to adapt quickly to subsequent changes in the needs of the market in the future.

Wind, hydro and solar farms often have no grid access or insufficient power capacity from the grid. This was the case when the Greater Gabbard wind farm was erected off the Suffolk coast in England. Normally power is supplied from the UK’s National Grid via subsea cables, but these were yet to be laid and commissioned, and so there was no mains supply available to power its ancillary equipment. Aggreko worked with operators to fill this gap and run the anti-corrosion system on the turbines with a combination of high and low voltage power to vital heaters and dehumidifiers.

We also provided a temporary power supply and climate control equipment during the build of the substation and then while it was offshore, which prevented deterioration of the HV equipment and switchgear prior to mains connection. The domestic power supply also maintained high productivity and the safety of the offshore workforce. During construction onshore we can also provide high voltage soak test to ensure that any defects in the relays, switchboards and transformers are identified and remedied prior to being sailed off.

Aggreko at Greater Gabbard offshore windfarm
Aggreko at Greater Gabbard offshore windfarm

Integrating renewable projects into energy infrastructure also has implications well beyond construction and grid connection. Crew transfer and cable laying vessels also need supplementary energy supplies and increased demand for such vessels and a lack of global supply has resulted in a growing trend to modify vessels for special uses. This process requires modular power and temperature control systems during the adaptation phase or where technology requires higher levels of energy and increased capacity.

Planning ahead in this way brings economic advantage, protects productivity and improves efficiency in the long term. That’s why having backup systems has become an integral part of renewable energy infrastructure.

Embedded, modular backup generators not only allow for continued productivity in the event of a power outage, but also remove the risk of lost investment and accruing additional costs, not to mention the knock-on effects to the wider transmission network.

This is why we spend so much time planning out contingency scenarios. Hydropower is a good case in point. It plays a key role in securing energy independence, in developing countries in particular, yet hydro is susceptible to the elements and downtime causes significant socio-economic issues.

The flexibility of modular power means that it is the perfect bedfellow for hydro plants, as it mitigates unpredictability caused by extreme weather, which is one of the main causes of power intermittency. Seasonal weather variations are difficult to predict, while the impacts of a dry season on hydroelectric generation are not. Detrimental weather affects capacity year after year in some regions, so expecting the worst can help utilities plan ahead and integrate alternative sources of power in their long-term strategies.

Anticipating and mitigating the risk of blackouts can be challenging, so a contingency plan should be in place, such as having an on-site fleet of backup generators to avoid gaps, or having a co-ordinated emergency power provision to minimize downtime.

We work with a number of national utilities around the world, including those with intermittent hydroelectric plants, such as in Kenya and Peru, to guarantee continuous power year round, ensuring that intermittency does not impact end users, productivity or economic growth.

Myanmar faces a similar challenge during the dry season. More than 70 per cent of the country’s energy supply comes from hydropower, so intermittency exposes its population to serious power shortages. Its national utility, Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise (MEPE), commissioned us to install 95 MW of interim gas power and contribute to the national grid during the summer months.

The interim site is fuelled by the area’s substantial domestic gas reserve to ensure a reliable power supply, while keeping running costs down. We worked with MEPE to implement an additional high pressure gas reduction facility and extra high voltage infrastructure to ensure the project was feasible and able to fill the gap quickly.

The biomass sector in particular also has to overcome very specific challenges. As the quest for negative emissions continues to be at the forefront of the global industry’s agenda, addressing these issues and protecting its reputation as a reliable fuel source is key to growth and continued investment. We work with biomass operators throughout the lifecycle of a plant, to ensure it is ready on time by powering the build and testing load capacity and maintaining temperatures during operation to protect production levels and avoid downtime.

Planning for intermittency or outage issues ‘from birth’ also enables project managers to think ahead, and the flexibility of mobile power makes it more than just useful for plugging capacity gaps. From powering ecological surveys, supporting manufacturing and commissioning of infrastructure and simulating full load conditions to guaranteeing consent, these additional benefits can often be mission critical.

That said, even planned interruptions to utilities are hard to tolerate, given the pressure placed on grid capacity around the world. Planned downtime is no longer justifiable, even if it is to upgrade energy infrastructure, integrate renewables and improve reliability. Modular power plays a significant role in these cases by filling the gap while the grid is down. Forward planning is essential to create a successful result of no impact on end users.

It is critical to ensure that renewable energy is generated efficiently and is reliable, and that the inevitable intermittency and redundancy caused by unpredictable weather conditions and inhospitable locations are mitigated.

Integrating renewables into the power mix is no mean feat, so being able to address all the issues that may arise in advance helps utilities to capitalize on the available opportunities.

Marcus Saul is Renewables Business Development Manager at Aggreko.