Systems integration, explained

23/03/16 | Blog

If we could all work together in harmony, the world would be a nicer place. That's the theory behind Energy Systems Integration, but it's a hard term to define. Policy Officer Hannah Smith gives it a go.

As an average-looking ferry pulls away from its berth at Kirkwall in Orkney, its passengers would be forgiven for thinking their trip was nothing special.

Ten miles away, under the waves, two turbines spin in the ferocious tide which roars past the island of Eday. Cables snake their way out of the water to an anonymous-looking shed, and in the engine room of the black and white ship, history is being made.

The European Marine Energy Centre’s Surf ‘n’ Turf project, which today is still in its infancy, will take electricity from the Eday turbine to produce hydrogen, which is then used to power Orkney Ferries’ fleet, overcoming a constraint on the electricity grid which means the turbines were only ever able to operate at a fraction of their full potential.

Surf ‘n’ Turf is at the very cutting edge of Energy Systems Integration: bringing together elements of the power system – electricity, gas, transport – to produce benefits which are greater than the sum of their constituent parts.

As such, the Orkney project, funded by the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge Fund, is providing practical experience in an area dominated traditionally by abstract concepts and lofty ideals.

Energy Systems Integration: the defining issue

Energy Systems Integration isn’t easy to define.

The energy we use comes at many scales – from traditional gigawatt-churning power stations to household rooftop solar PV panels – and is delivered in many different ways. The electricity grid carries terawatt-hours of energy from geographically-disparate generators, while fuel tankers deliver petrol and diesel to forecourts and the natural gas which heats many of our homes and businesses flows beneath our feet.
It’s all energy, but the pathways by which it’s transported are almost as diverse as the scales at which it’s used.

The US view

Ben Kroposki, Director of the Power Systems Engineering Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, has long studied the benefits of thinking about energy in an integrated way:

“Urbanization, modernization, and economics are placing ever-increasing demands on systems around the world to squeeze more out of less. By focusing on the optimization of energy systems across multiple pathways and scales, we can better understand and make use of potential co-benefits that increase reliability and performance, reduce cost, and minimize environmental impacts.”

Explained: three ESI examples

Combining renewables with energy storage offers a solution to grid constraints – meaning that low-carbon, home-grown energy can be delivered to the consumer, even when the electricity grid is full to the brim. Energy storage can, in fact, provide a number of services to our grid operators, helping them manage our system and keep the lights on.

Carbon capture technology – despite recent UK Government announcements which have hampered short-term deployment – can help existing fossil fuel plants become more efficient as well as providing uses for decommissioned oil and gas infrastructure, making these industries cleaner.

As natural gas reserves decline, biogases produced from decomposing waste and gases such as hydrogen, which can be created using renewable energy, could be the next sources of gas, cleanly fuelling that industry into the next decades.

Integrating our energy systems – combining technologies and doing more together – will offer fundamental improvements to our energy landscape. Integration will drive efficiency and tackle the ‘energy trilemma’ (the need for secure supplies, low-carbon systems and cost-effective energy for the consumer), while novel technologies will give existing power sources a new lease of life.

"Huge opportunity"

This is an area in which industry can lead the way, and that's a huge opportunity. It's a chance to better develop and integrate emerging technologies, and it's a chance to create jobs and create an energy system that's fit for the future.

So while the Orkney of the past may have been more famous for its Neolithic ruins and stone circles than for Energy Systems Integration, it’s hugely encouraging that the islands are making the most of their renewable resource and providing the world with a template to follow.