Interview with Keith Bell


Keith Bell, Professor of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, shares his energy road map for Europe.



Professor Bell, in preparing our energy system for a low carbon future, how do we foster in Europe an effective energy transition?



“From the supply side, in terms of where the energy is coming from, we actually have come to a pretty good position in respect of electricity and renewables, because the costs have come down so much, down to or on a par with those of gas powered generation. On the demand side - what sources of energy people choose to use and how they use it - there is still some way to go to encourage the transition toward decarbonizing.

Examples of the kind of energy that people, industry and commerce use and which is not already electrified, especially in the UK, would be heat and transport. The costs of moving to low carbon electricity do not look quite that good at the moment, for heat anyway, since the capital cost for an air sourced heat pump is very high. As for transport, we are getting there with electric vehicles: depending on the pattern of your journeys, because the cost of electricity is so much lower than petrol or diesel, although the capital cost of an electric vehicle is very high, the average costs, if you take them over a lifetime, are comparable with those of an average combustion engine vehicle. So for people to adopt an electric vehicle, they need the money upfront to face the capital cost.


What could be the impact of climate change and related extreme weather conditions on energy infrastructure?


Although we are working toward global temperature rise of no more than1.5 degrees, we should be prudent and be aware of what might happen both at that level and higher. In July the Committee on Climate Change published its annual progress report to Parliament, and a large part of that report was talking about adaptation measures. Their view is that the energy system is relatively well prepared in comparison with other sectors. This is not to say that there is room for complacency. More thinking needs to be done about the resilience and that includes three elements: can we prevent adverse impacts as a result of events? We cannot 100% prevent everything. So, secondly, can we contain the impact? The third bit is how we recover from it and what do we do in the meantime. Should we spend money to strengthen the system so it does not have an impact; do we spend the money on defensive measures to limit the impact or do we invest in measures to restore the system more quickly?


The European Commission has estimated the Continent will need around 200 billion between now and 2030 to upgrade Europe’s energy infrastructure. Does it sound right to you?


I suppose the figure includes both the production of energy and, particularly looking at decarbonization up to 2030, mainly electricity generation and reinforcing the networks. We have the best resources in different places: the British Isles are very good for wind energy in particular, off shore and on shore, Southern Europe is better for solar PV. The hydro resources are in Norway and the Alps but the big demand centers are kind in the middle of Europe. There is a lot of talk about community energy or local energy and this has a lot of advantages, but would we be able to develop it at a sufficient scale and would it always be cost-effective? Use of the best resources suggests these different locations across the continent though there then needs to be investment to provide enough network capacity to get power to the main demand centres.


Why is it important to build a well interconnected and integrated trans-European energy grid in your view?


Two things that it can do really: one is that it allows a greater competition in terms of the wholesale market for energy users across Europe both for electricity and for gas. If carbon is priced appropriately in those markets, then the cheapest sources would be renewable or low carbon. As I said, those resources are in different places and you need a network to get access to. The other thing a network can do is give access to shared backup sources of power. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the electricity system was first installed, different areas, regions or cities built enough power generation capacity to meet their own needs and then a bit more in case of breakdowns. But actually you can share that backup capacity with the neighboring regions and reduce the total costs if you interconnect those regions, which is what we did. When we have renewables, which are highly variable in their output, interconnectors would allow us in Britain, for example, if the wind is not blowing, to still get access to hydropower from Norway or nuclear power from France.


Europe’s grid digitalization is lagging behind, according to some reports: the continent will not meet its 80% smart meter target by 2020. Do you agree with this outlook?



To call a lot of these devices smart is not very accurate. The main thing that the programmes at the moment are doing is to install an automated metering: bills can be settled accurately and data can be gathered on consumption every 30 minutes or less, rather than every few months. As it’s still very expensive to store electrical energy, the extra data can help optimize the size of the grid and show the potential value of flexible demand.


 by Manuela Mirkos




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