News Article

Flexible Energy, Natural Resources Key in Decarbonization

By Cas Biekmann | Thu, 03/04/2021 - 16:03

Despite the climate goals set by international agreements, industry experts agree that much work still needs to be done. True sustainability, they say, remains an elusive concept. During the webinar, “Mexico's Path to 100%: Our country's trajectory towards 100% renewable energy,” on Wednesday, industry experts examined this issue, focusing on the Mexican context and the path to 100 percent renewable energy.

“The Path to 100%” initiative is driven by Finnish energy technology mainstay Wärtsilä, which hosted the webinar. “It brings together experts from various areas to examine what a viable, practical path to 100 percent would look like,” said Sampo Suvisaari, Energy Business Director Latin America North of Wärtsilä. “The topic generates strong discussions, because the path is anything but obvious.”

Whatever the route, a focus on achievability is at the core of the initiative, featuring sensible investments and a reliable system throughout the process. This latter factor is important because renewable energy is intermittent, meaning that the grid system cannot rely on it 24/7. Simply adding battery storage is not enough. “The system has to be designed to deal with extreme conditions,” Suvisaari said, referring to the unforeseen cold snap in Texas that halted natural gas supply to Mexico, causing shortages and blackouts in parts of the country.

To transition to 100 percent, Mexico needs an integral approach, said Patricia Tatto, Vice President America of ATA Renewables. “The idea that Mexico could reach 100 percent will need great effort from everyone. It requires government support, a strong legal framework, backing from companies and broad assistance from society.” Energy efficiency, electrical vehicles and decarbonization are needed to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goals agreed by 105 countries, including Mexico.

Even within the industry there are hurdles, especially in overcoming the mindset of some energy professionals. “Engineers can suffer from tunnel vision and be very conservative,” said Santiago Barcón, CEO of PQBarcon and BAORGG. “But we cannot risk blackouts in the system either.” It would, therefore, be best to work with as many different options as possible. “I am convinced that the future is electric, and it is renewable. The only thing that will change is the speed with which we get there,” Barcón added.

Raúl Carral, Business Development Mexico, Central America & Carribean at Wärtsilä, agreed with this notion, pointing out that “The Path to 100%” is more than possible. “We have been studying the technologies, and it is indeed feasible to have a system running fully on renewables, while remaining completely stable and operating at very low costs,” Carral said. In fact, solar costs have dropped to as low as US$20MW/h in Europe, and they are decreasing further as time goes by. As such, Carral urges engineers to start envisioning the path, despite the issues that may arise.  

When incorporating renewable energy, Carral said that the first stretch is the most difficult for any grid. “Reaching between 10 to 20 percent renewable capacity in the mix, abrupt changes can occur,” he said. In the future, countries will have the opportunity to follow a better-planned and well-structured approach.

Price and reliability are important factors to consider, all experts agreed. To ensure the system remains stable, flexibility is key. “The more flexibility a system has, the more robust it becomes,” highlighted Barcón. Simply adopting as much renewable energy as possible into the mix might not be feasible for grid operators, unless they have flexible options. High investments directed at improving the system can be a deterrent as well. “Sadly, the world is all for being green until the bill arrives,” he said. Nevertheless, Barcón expects renewable penetration to continue growing steadily.

Describing the characteristics of flexible power, Carral first explained what inflexible power looks like. He said that included those power plants that go from 0 to 100 percent of their capacity over the course of a day. As such, they cannot adapt fast enough. Examples of these power plants are coal plants and even the more modern combined cycles. “Little by little, these power plants lose their role in the system as it evolves,” Carral said. Flexibility, on the other hand, can be reached especially “through power plants that can go from 0 to 100 in a few minutes.” Flexible power can come from battery storage, which does not produce power but can inject it into the grid when renewable energy stops producing. Furthermore, flexible power engines can play an important role when providing energy when it is needed, especially for stability.

Renewable energy also can lead to excess energy. This has a clear benefit, Carral pointed out. “Excess energy can be beneficial, not only for battery storage. It can also be used to generate green hydrogen, which can be used for various engines whenever it is needed.”

By developing these technologies smartly, the 100 percent goal becomes closer to reality. Carral noted that large, long-term energy investments should be focused on the technologies of the future instead of on technologies that will lose their value in the next decade.

In this regard, Tatto believes that reducing fossil fuel use in power production is absolutely necessary to achieve Mexico’s climate goals. Phasing out fossil fuels immediately is not probable, however, so carbon capture technology can be integrated to reduce the environmental impact. Using top technology is also crucial to deal with renewable’s intermittence. Mexico has a further staple it can rely on: its clean hydropower capacity. Other experts agreed on the importance of this long-standing staple in Mexico’s energy mix but warned about the problems associated with hydroelectricity. Water levels, for instance, are strongly impacted by climate change. “Thermoelectric plants needed to be constructed in Brazil to offset when hydroelectric power plants were not able to operate,” Suvisaari said. Furthermore, Tatto pointed out that new hydropower is often not an option. “New hydroelectricity becomes less and less feasible due to the displacement of people its large installations entail.”

Mexico’s path to 100 percent could also result in great social benefit. Experts point out that cheap, clean energy is a motor for development in the country. Barcón noted that 2.5 million Mexicans still live without stable, constant electricity supply. Flexible power is an opportunity to solve this issue. “Stable electrical capacity can change people’s lives,” Barcón said.  

To ensure that this development is sustainable, the technology needs to be examined as well, such as in the case of battery storage, which mostly relies on lithium batteries for the moment. “The world seems to forget where we source our lithium from,” Barcón said, highlighting the impact of the intensive mining operations that pull the soft metal out of the ground. “We would have to be consistent in regard to sustainability.”

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst