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30 November 2022

Enlit is alight with enthusiasm for change, but no renewables in sight

It turns out that Enlit Europe in Frankfurt this week is a little schizophrenic – it has two very distinct personalities – one which ignores renewable energy and the other which is a slave to it. Let’s explain.

As you walk through the hoards of visitors and among the vast exhibition space that is Hall 12 at Frankfurt’s vast Messe, you would be hard put to find any mention whatsoever of renewables. The moment you go to one of the conference sessions it is all anyone talks about.

So it was with trepidation we exited Hall 12 and toddled off to the keynote – where we were regaled first by a plea from a very eloquent Ukrainian, offering a list of required generation equipment to rebuild his grid (see story elsewhere in this issue), before the main keynotes all delivered calls to get 1.5°C back on track from a UK utility, a French equipment supplier and an Italian grid specialist. They could not have been more in tune if they had harmonized together.

Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, UK threw his script away and almost tearfully praised the Ukraine speaker saying that if he could keep his grid together while being bombed, surely we could keep our grids together while being transformed.

“And it’s really important to note that Putin would not have the resources for his war on Ukraine without our fossil fuel addiction.” Jackson then told an anecdote about some oil execs who were relieved when someone suggested that there would still be oil around in 2050. “Otherwise what role is there for us?” they asked.

Jackson dressed in jeans and trainers with a devil take the hindmost air about him admitted he did not care if there was a role for them. “The horse traders of 1894 wondered what they would do about the Horse manure crisis, and the answer was motor cars, and there was no role left for the horse trader. Why should there be any role left for the oil and gas traders?”

The energy transition needs characters like Jackson, in your face, passionate and uncompromising, “the problem with this industry is wishful thinking, and managing the energy transition is harder than idle wishful thinking. Either get on board with decarbonization or there will be no role for you.”

“Steve Ballmer (of Microsoft) laughed at the iPhone, I know what happened to the iPhone, but what happened to Steve Ballmer,” – then defiantly asked the audience if anyone had a windows phone. The audience remained silent, and if anyone did have a windows phone, now was not the time to tell anyone about it. “You’ve all seen ‘Don’t look up’ but many individuals love their job and their career more than they love the planet,” Jackson warned.

Warming to his task Jackson said that “EVs are the gateway drug for a renewable household,” and that this would lead to a revolution in distributed energy.” He offered his company’s Kraken software as a real time, machine learning optimization that would spread like streaming video and Netflix. Given that our team pushed streaming video for 20 years in our sister publication Faultline we have seen through that transition, and he has a point.

Finally a word on demand response – and Jackson claimed that his company alone can make offers to his clients, in real time and in just a few hours get a commitment to turn off demand for a city the size of Leicester, which for those who live outside the UK is a city of over 500,000.

Next in the trio of speakers was Frederic Godemel – Executive Vice President, Power Systems, at Schneider Electric who said much the same thing, but with a heavy French accent, a similar pair of trendy jeans, but focused more on electricity efficiency – which seems to be the core product of Schneider these days.

“Inflation is 10.6%” he said, “but energy inflation is 41.5% and the rise in energy inflation started way before the Russian war and he showed a graph where natural gas demand began to diverge from last year’s in June 2021, due to already rising global gas demand.

“Our current trajectory is 2.5°C and we are eliminating just 4GT of CO2 a year – it needs to be 10GT (Gigatons).

“We propose 3 ways,” and he cites numbers straight from the company’s labs – efficiency, electrification and going green are the three ways. Again, like Jackson he is a fan of Distributed forms of energy – “Buildings alone can create a microgrid, drive up heating and lighting efficiency and electrify every type of energy.”

“Doing that alone we can lose between 30% and 50% of each building’s energy usage. That would cut one third off emissions – Why consume energy when no-one is in the room, turn off light, turn off heat.”

And digitize grids. We can save $5 billion in transmission and distribution in Europe alone doing this,” and then he once again talked up what he calls the Prosumer revolution and ended with key milestones on the way to a Europe which was on target for 1.5°C . One of the key steps was to “take renewables to 65% of the grid by 2030.”

Straight after Godemel, Robert Denda, CEO of Enel’s Gridspertise immediately complained about how few consumers had real time interactions with their energy supplier, something Jackson had been cooing about earlier, simply because the grid owners had not invested enough money in improving grids. He said that current global spending was around $300 billion a year, and it needs to be $500 billion.

He talked about heat pumps installing currently at 1 million a month globally, but more needs to be done, and that grids which were often built 100 years ago need to change dramatically, and become able to change in real time. It’s a big ask. He wants grids to be digital, flexible and cybersecure. There were no cynics in the audience but had there been one, they might have noted that he does sell grid expertise.

The three then answered the moderators key question, to sum it up in one word. Initially they tried with complex words like “Incumbency” and “prioritization,” later the audience helped with words like “inertia” and “(lack of) Ambition.”

But “policy” brought the most vehemence, and as Jackson talked about this he urged politicians and utilities alike to give “price signals” to the market, and gave examples of how UK communities who supposedly did not want wind farms built near them, had overrode resistance by accepting cheap energy from those nearby windfarms whenever they were turning – 20% off and even 50% off in key circumstances – this goes a long way to convincing a community that wind farms are a good thing.

But outside in the exhibition hall, we returned to a reality made of products to conduct business as usual – no specialist solar gizmos in sight, not a wind turbine maker anywhere. We saw one sign which said “Energy Storage Section,” but found more grid digitization companies, and only one energy storage firm, Enerox trading now as CellCube, offering Vanadium flow  batteries for the grid.

But there were rows and rows of new companies which have come out with more and more ways to digitize the grid, and when we asked here about renewables were told “that’s what digitizing the grid is all about, embracing renewables.” The show remains schizophrenic, with this being a traditional electricity show, at least with a conference which has all the right ideas.