ENGINEERING 2050: 'We are facing a transformation within the energy sector'

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

As the Sun rises in Shanghai, its rays hit rooftop solar panels.

But with most residents still in bed demand is low, so energy flows to California, where electric cars charge in driveways and on roads.

This vision of a ‘smart’ global grid which adapts to demand and delivers electricity to where it is needed could become a reality by 2030, according to Adrian Timbus, manager of smart grids and wind power at engineering giant ABB. 

Networks such as the Synchronous Grid of Continental Europe and the IPS/UPS in the former Soviet Union already share power between many countries to reduce the burden and improve reliability. A global grid is perhaps optimistic given political tensions, however. 

But for Timbus, it looks increasingly necessary as countries aim for greater dependence on renewables. 

The sector will change massively, he says, as he sets out his company’s work helping operators digitise energy systems with the ABB Ability platform. 

“We are facing a transformation and a transition within the energy sector. It is definitely not going to be simpler, it looks like it is going to be much more complex than it is today. With new technologies that will come out, the speed of change is faster than we have ever seen.”

Niche ways of generating renewable energy will become mainstream in coming decades – floating wind turbines or tidal power, for instance – while existing methods such as solar will become more efficient. Experimental storage methods such as giant batteries or molten salt towers will also mature, easing the transition to large-scale renewables. 

While those technologies may well play an increasing role in our power post-2050, Timbus’s main focus is how each turbine, panel or control centre connects. 

Micro-grids will define the global network, he says, as so-called ‘prosumers’ generate their own electricity to reduce reliance on centralised grids and energy companies spot the opportunity to bring them into wider networks, trading analytics and cyber-security services in exchange for excess electricity.

Fleetingly described by Timbus as the Internet of Energy, the global network would increasingly rely on automation and artificial intelligence to do complex, repetitive or time-consuming tasks currently handled by engineers. Connecting localised generation sources to wider networks will be automated, he says, while artificial intelligence will take charge of maintenance and analysis to maximise efficiency. 

“In the past, when it came to adding new assets within a system there was always a type of engineering job,” he says. “But now you will need an automated system.”

Despite an over-reliance on jargon in ABB’s vision – other ‘independent actors’ sit alongside prosumers in the ‘ecosystem’ – many of the biggest changes are already happening. European operator Next Kraftwerke connects 5,500 electricity-generating or consuming units across the continent.

With sources including biogas, wind and solar generation, the nine-year-old operator’s network has a combined capacity of 4,500MW, replacing the equivalent of two large coal-fired power stations. The catch? Next Kraftwerke owns none of the components in its network. 

Instead, it connects generators with commercial and industrial consumers – it is a ‘virtual power plant’.  The flexible system adjusts to weather conditions to keep the grid stable, while users take advantage of fluctuating energy prices.

Worldwide energy usage will increase 28% from 2015 to 2040, says the US Energy Information Administration. But with change already happening, the energy system could become smarter, greener and more democratic.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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