Smart engineering enabling the energy transition

The Wikipedia page for the term Engineering contains the following sentence:

The term engineering is derived from the Latin ingenium, meaning "cleverness" and ingeniare, meaning "to contrive, devise".

The transformation that the energy industry is currently undergoing requires precisely that, cleverness and "ingeniare".

A hundred-and-fifty years ago the industry was kick-started by the nascent and novel resource of electrical power. As towns and cities became electrified, the need to move electrical energy over long distances gave birth to a whole new industry tasked with the overall generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power.

This in turn created the need to develop and manufacture a wide range of electrical apparatuses, from turbines and generators to transformers, lines, breakers, protection devices and the myriad other assets that comprise electrical systems of today.

I often wonder what it would have been like to work in those embryonic stages of the electrical industry. With many discoveries and new ideas being tried on a frequent basis, it must have been an exciting time to be an electrical engineer.

As the core technologies that defined the main elements of electrical systems matured, developments in new materials and manufacturing techniques kept advancing the field. Power transformers achieved higher voltage ratings and physical sizes were reduced.

Fast-forward to the present day and we face a new challenge which the previous generations did not experience. We live in a time where renewable power generation technologies, the main modes of transportation and the foundational concepts of electrical systems are in a state of flux.

The engineers that started the industry had the challenge of creating it in the first place, we have the challenge of transitioning from this model into one that is not completely defined yet.

The Energy Transition

The term "Energy Transition" or "Energy Transformation" refers to the process of shifting from fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. This transition is necessary to address the environmental and social impacts of energy production and consumption, such as climate change, air pollution, and resource depletion.

The lack of inertia of renewable distributed energy resources (DER) and the reverse power flows they create are putting the stability of modern electrical systems to the test.

Energy storage solutions are being developed and trialled, which means that our fundamental assumptions about energy generation and distribution are being redefined. Electrical vehicles seem to be gaining real momentum and their impact on electrical networks is yet to be understood and experienced. New electronic, computing and algorithmic technologies are enabling levels of instrumentation, monitoring and decision-making that previous generations could have only dreamt of.

Moving forward, there are several challenges that must be addressed in order to successfully transition to a more sustainable energy system:

  1. Cost: Renewable energy technologies are often more expensive than traditional fossil fuel-based technologies, which can make the transition more challenging for governments and individuals.

  2. Infrastructure: The transition to renewable energy requires significant investment in new infrastructure, such as wind farms, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. Add to this the ageing of existing infrastructure.

  3. Intermittency: Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent, meaning that they are not always available. This can make it more difficult to meet energy demand consistently and may require the use of backup power sources or energy storage technologies.

  4. Political and social barriers: The energy transformation may face resistance from certain groups that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, such as fossil fuel companies and governments that rely on fossil fuel revenues.

  5. Technological challenges: The energy transformation requires the development and deployment of new technologies, such as advanced energy storage systems, which may be technically and financially challenging.

Over the next few articles, we will delve into each of these challenges and propose how the smart application of sound engineering principles is essential to address these in cost-effective and sustainable ways.

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