Increasing the shares of renewable energy sources in the grid infrastructure with Antonella Battaglini
“The changing complexities of the power system present fresh challenges while also creating a vast wealth of opportunity.”
As founder and CEO of Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI), Antonella Battaglini combines her experience as a scientist with her knowledge as a social entrepreneur to create an innovative solution aimed at producing a sustainable electricity future. Antonella was named one of Tällberg’s 2015 five Global Leaders for her commitment to a sustainable energy future, and in addition to RGI’s activities, she is one of the expert members of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Electricity of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The Beam: How did the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) begin?
Antonella Battaglini: The 2008 agreement upon the 2020 climate and energy targets made very clear that a major transformation of the power sector was needed to achieve the reduction of C02 emissions. A steady increase in the share of renewable energy sources and the expansion of electricity infrastructure to support their integration would be necessary to reach the set targets. The combination of these circumstances made the development of new electricity infrastructure more desirable to some environmental groups than it used to be and suddenly created joint interests between NGOs and transmission system operators (TSOs). These similar interests made it quite logical that these two traditionally opposing groups would someday work together. And in 2009, a huge window of opportunity for a joint TSO-NGO platform opened when the EU’s Third Energy Package entered into force. Hereafter, company ownership of generation sites and transmission networks were required to be unbundled and TSOs became more independent actors that were now presented with an opportunity to reinvent themselves. At this point in time, we decided to found RGI.
What are the main missions of RGI?
Last year, we reworked our long-term strategy and also devised an adapted, clear mission statement which reads: “The Renewables Grid Initiative is a unique collaboration of NGOs and TSOs from across Europe. We promote transparent, environmentally sensitive grid development to enable the further steady growth of renewable energy and the energy transition.”
How is RGI different from other organisations that deal with grid-related issues?
RGI has a very unique membership structure. We connect different sectors of society while holding the firm belief that these partnerships are necessary to achieve the transformation of the power sector. Our particular strengths lay in dealing with many divisive issues with regard to climate and energy policy, and grid development in particular. Industry often openly speaks out for civil society, and vice versa, this accords us with a level of credibility that very few organisations possess.
But the distinct environment that RGI provides also offers the constant opportunity to challenge each other, to dare to jointly think differently and to venture into unchartered territory with experienced partners by your side.
What are the necessary steps for implementing renewable energy without endangering the current level of system reliability?
One of the key elements, of course, is an adequate upgrade and expansion of the electricity grid. We believe that despite the increased use of decentralised resources, new lines are required to connect the often remote generation sites of renewables with consumption centres and storage sites, in order to meet the decarbonisation targets, maintain a highly reliable system and also keep costs down.
The system is also in growing need of a variety of options to ensure flexibility, including dispatchable generation, centralised and decentralised storage and demand side management. Renewables and prosumers should increasingly contribute to flexibility, thus requiring a smart digitalised system. Deployment of ICT technologies will allow data management and feed-in control.
In addition, the electrification of the mobility, heating and cooling sector is underway. The changing complexities of the power system present fresh challenges while also creating a vast wealth of opportunity. This is a massive revolution and in order to be successful it necessitates effective industrial solutions, fair and forward looking policies, and strong support across society.
What are the strategic objectives that RGI members have agreed upon?
RGI’s strategy is threefold. Firstly, we aim to achieve full clarity on the fact that we need grid development in order to integrate an increasing share of renewables. We therefore aim to further develop our narrative on the need for grids and adequately convey it to relevant institutions and the concerned public.
Secondly, RGI supports the implementation of good practice approaches that lead to improved projects in grid development. This is true for all implementation stages and all aspects of the process, including transparency, participation, nature protection and technical innovation.
And thirdly, RGI advocates for sustainable grid development with relevant EU and national institutions, and for supporting policies and good governance.
You are fighting to build a sustainable grid infrastructure in order to integrate increasing shares of renewable energy sources in the system. Why is it so urgent that we build a decarbonised European energy sector?
A decarbonised energy sector is needed not only in Europe but also across the world. Global economies based on fossil fuels have delivered wealth and prosperity to millions of people, but have also created immense problems related to climate change, environmental degradation, geopolitical instability and much more. I believe that Europe can and needs to lead this transition if it wants to retain important industrial abilities on the global markets.
How do you, at RGI, help this transitional process from Europe’s energy system dependent on fossil fuel towards one that integrates renewable energy?
Renewables need electricity grids, however citizens often question the need for new lines claiming that they do not serve a future they can understand or identify with. Impacts on local communities and the environment also often stir public opposition, resulting in the process of the development of new lines becoming lengthy and challenging. RGI assists with the successful overcoming of this opposition on many levels.
Since its founding RGI has aspired to bring more transparency into the grid planning process and has urged project developers to better explain how new lines serve the integration of renewables and how new technologies and innovative approaches can reduce the need for new lines. This started with the 2011 commitment of a coalition of Europe’s 29 largest environmental NGOs and grid operators to work together and ensure that the goals of grid modernisation and environmental protection are achieved side by side. This ‘European Grid Declaration’ (EGD) was extended one year later to now also include pledges of transparency and public participation. RGI members already implement many of the principles outlined within the EGD.
Since 2012, RGI has additionally collected innovative, forward-looking good practices to make grid deployment quicker, more socially acceptable, and increasingly environmentally sound. To allow these practices to shine and be disseminated across Europe and beyond we have created the ‘Good Practice of the Year’ award.
Moreover, we have collected solutions that serve to illustrate to policy makers and regulators how we believe the political and regulatory framework needs to be adjusted, in order to support energy and climate objectives.
Finally, RGI works to implement the principles agreed upon and the good practices identified on the ground, e.g. by leading the project BESTGRID. It consisted of five pilot projects in three European countries in which TSOs and NGOs tested practices to speed up permitting and increase support for projects, thus giving confidence for more actions to come. BESTGRID proved that collaborative approaches can effectively deliver better projects, provide more understanding and boost support among society.
What projects will you be developing at RGI in the future?
One of our goals is to strengthen the collaboration between TSOs and NGOs in actual grid development projects on the ground. We want to increasingly foster the engagement of local NGO groups in future grid projects so that their specific knowledge can actively be included in the development and implementation of the respective project. Concurrently, we work together at European, national and also intermittently at international level in order to deliver top down commitment and direction as well as political intervention.
We have recently started to reach beyond Europe via an international learning exchange that brings together energy experts from across the globe to think about how to jointly shape the energy future, and to improve personal relationships and continuously learn from each other. We intend to gradually pursue this exchange in the future.
Another of our core projects at the moment continues to be about grid planning and the ways in which different scenarios for the future are being formulated and integrated into the modelling exercises done by TSOs. The goal here is to consider extreme scenarios on top of the standard ones as well as different world-views on how we should develop our energy system. This exercise is very significant as it helps grid operators to understand how to deal with different realities, in addition to clarifying the role of the grid in each of the considered scenario for interested stakeholders. An example could be to investigate the need for grids and related economic implications in a scenario where, by 2030, at least 50% of generation comes from decentralised resources. While this scenario may not be considered probable, understanding its implications is not simply an intellectual exercise, but could potentially bring real practical benefits.
Similarly, fully understanding the electrification of other sectors becomes more and more relevant. We envisage expanding into new directions and will always observe with interest the actions of big players in this area; such as Tesla with regard to e-mobility and battery investments.
Are you hopeful about the development of renewables in the future?
Yes, I am. Already today renewable technologies are attracting more investments than fossil fuels and nuclear technologies combined. Their cost continues to fall thus reducing the economic viability of other options. Of course this does not mean that we can relax. Many still believe that renewables cannot fuel our economies and that it is technically impossible to operate a renewables-based system safely. We are proving them wrong on a daily basis in Germany, Spain, Italy and several other countries. However, the success of renewables is heavily contingent upon their ability to interact among themselves to deliver dispatchable load. This implies that a suitable, flexibility-rewarding market design and sufficient physical trade to smooth variability across long distances is required to complement the steady growth of renewables.
For more information about Renewables Grid Initiative, visit their website.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou