Birol, IEA: COVID-19 Crisis Shows Need to Keep Electricity Options Open
Date: March 25th 2020
Author: Tanja Srnovršnik
The huge disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis has highlighted how much modern societies rely on electricity, wrote Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), in a post published on Sunday. Birol noted how the coronavirus crisis has shown the need to keep electricity options open.“Millions of people are now confined to their homes, resorting to teleworking to do their jobs, e-commerce sites to do their shopping, and streaming video platforms to find entertainment. A reliable electricity supply underpins all of these services, as well as powering the devices most of us take for granted such as fridges, washing machines and light bulbs,” said Birol in the recently published commentary.
“The coronavirus crisis reminds us of electricity’s indispensable role in our lives. It’s also providing insights into how that role is set to expand and evolve in the years and decades ahead,” stressed Birol.
Birol explained that in most economies that have taken strong confinement measures in response to the coronavirus – and for which the IEA has available data – “electricity demand has declined by around 15%, largely as a result of factories and businesses halting operations. Some of these economies, such as Spain and California, are among those with the highest shares of wind and solar electricity generation in the world. If electricity demand falls quickly while weather conditions remain the same, the share of variable renewables like wind and solar can become higher than normal.”
“With weaker electricity demand, power generation capacity is abundant. However, electricity system operators have to constantly balance demand and supply in real time. People typically think of power outages as happening when demand overwhelms supply. But in fact, some of the most high-profile blackouts in recent times took place during periods of low demand,” warned Birol.
“When electricity from wind and solar is satisfying the majority of demand, systems need to maintain flexibility in order to be able to ramp up other sources of generation quickly when the pattern of supply shifts, such as when the sun sets. A very high share of wind and solar in a given moment also makes the maintenance of grid stability more challenging,” said Birol.
According to Birol, “system operators have developed ways to manage these challenges, but extraordinary developments – such as lockdowns of entire countries during global pandemics – create new tests. For example, the abrupt slowdown in industrial and business activity across much of Europe has reduced electricity demand, but it is also depriving power systems of a key source of flexibility.”
“Under normal circumstances, large-scale electricity consumers such as factories can adjust their usage to help balance the system, but that option is hardly open today. This highlights the need for policy makers to carefully assess the potential availability of flexibility resources under extreme conditions,” stressed Birol.
“Although new forms of short-term flexibility such as battery storage are on the rise, most electricity systems rely on natural gas power plants – which can quickly ramp generation up or down at short notice – to provide flexibility, underlining the critical role of gas in clean energy transitions,” said Birol.
“Today, most gas power plants lose money if they are used only from time to time to help the system adjust to shifts in demand. The lower levels of electricity demand during the current crisis are adding to these pressures. Hydropower, an often forgotten workhorse of electricity generation, remains an essential source of flexibility,” noted Birol.
“Firm capacity, including nuclear power in countries that have chosen to retain it as an option, is a crucial element in ensuring a secure electricity supply. Policy makers need to design markets that reward different sources for their contributions to electricity security, which can enable them to establish viable business models,” added Birol.
“A key lesson of the current crisis is to make sure that electricity systems have sufficient resources not just of physical assets but also human capital,” according to Birol.
This article is available also in Slovene.