What are the main challenges facing European countries in terms of energy transition?
Burkhard Sager: Transition strategies are different from one country to another. For instance, Germany, one of Europe’s largest networks, is quite ambitious. Not only is it switching off all its nuclear power plants, but there are plans to step away from coal and oil power in the future. The country is also renewing its network and expanding its capacity to transport energy from north, where the majority of the wind energy is generated, to south, where the heavy industry is located. And SPIE is working at every stage of the process: from building power plants, to upgrading transition lines, substations and city grids. Ultimately, Germany is also upgrading its interfaces with other European countries. More generally, we recognise that to make sure the right capacities are available at the right time, clients and suppliers are working more in partnership.
Peter Grispen: In the Netherlands, we have one of the best distribution systems in the world, with the lowest outage time: about 20 minutes a year against 71 minutes in France and 90 minutes in the UK. At European level, the main challenge for grid operators will be to maintain the quality of energy supply at the levels countries are used to, because renewable energy projects are much more decentralised. Developers often choose cheap, remote land, where the grid is too small to transport large volumes of energy. I believe that network operators should coordinate with all the stakeholders, including companies like SPIE, to identify the best locations. The challenge is about getting the right people around the table.
How is SPIE innovating to develop renewable energy?
P.G.: With renewable energy, storage is the main focus of research. To avoid a situation whereby companies generating wind or solar energy have to sell their energy at market prices when they are too low, they must be able to store it in batteries or any other energy storage system. In the Netherlands, SPIE is consulting with a company in the south of the country to develop an underground water energy storage facility. They have the idea to build a pump facility under the ground, as big as a power plant from about 1400MW, that will be connected to the 380kV grid. And that’s where SPIE comes in.
B.S.: In Germany, we’ve built digital twins for substations, which are 3D models for planning upgrades and refurbishments. This makes operations smoother and safer, while facilitating predictive maintenance. In partnership with transition service operators, we’re also piloting a helicopter system for monitoring transmission lines in a single fly-over. We survey conductor lines and poles, and then we use data analysis software to know when and where maintenance is required. We now have to figure out if we can use drones instead of helicopters.
In the future, what will be SPIE's role in this industry?
P.G.: We don't need to invent anything new to produce savings on energy. We just need to find new combinations. For example, SPIE has won an innovation prize for connecting a new solar power plant to a gas-fired power plant using high-power busbar systems instead of increasing the grid. That saved millions of euros. With its ability to look at challenges from a different perspective, SPIE remains a key partner for the energy industry.
B.S.: Every time there is an innovation at the edge of development, we are involved. Not only do we have the expertise to develop ourselves, but we also have the capability to help our customers over come the challenges they face. The services provided by SPIE in the energy sector are vital today and will continue to be so tomorrow. So I expect that we will still be around in 120 years!