Future Energy: Challenging the Status Quo

Author: Hanif Mashal

Experts from The-DO-School at Future Energy Forum 2017, Astana, Kazakhstan

The 9th largest country in the world has an ambitious goal to become one of the leading nations in sustainable energy. The largest Central Asian nation Kazakhstan has setup goals for the republic to implement ambitious renewable energy projects. The target is to meet approximately 10% of its total electricity generation from renewables by 2030, and by 2050 half of the nation’s power will be generated from sustainable energy resources.

The republic’s vision has been the center piece of debate and conferences in Future Energy Forum (FEF 2017). Future Energy is the theme of the impressive EXPO 2017 Astana from June – September with over 100 countries participating to showcase their businesses and technologies.

At FEF 2017 participants from a variety of public, private and academic circles debated emerging energy solutions, technical implementation and the effect on stimulating economic growth in 21st century. The essential goal has been to provide insights on topics that would help Kazakhstan catapult toward its ambitious objectives. This article outlines a few takeaways of mine as an expert participant of the forum from wind energy sector.

It is important to note that sustainable energy by itself is not the answer to climate change unless it carries a sustainable business model to stimulate growth. Furthermore, aspects such as public awareness and political well play a major role in facilitating timely execution.

While in some circles around the world transition to sustainable energy is seen as a complex challenge, there are simple solutions that can have a significant impact.

The past decade have generated accelerated innovations in technologies focused on providing the effective run-way required for energy transition to take-off now. It is well known that challenges exist with high penetration of wind and solar power into the utility grids; however there are answers to such challenges. From many interesting topics at the event, energy storage and wind farms raised some valuable debate among the experts.

Energy Storage:Utility Scale and Distributed Systems

Recent years have shown significant interest and injection of capital investments into energy storage technologies worldwide.  As wind and solar power penetration to grid increases the need for energy storage becomes paramount. In periods where more energy is available than demand (low load), the storage can take the surplus renewable energy and supply it back to grid when the demand rises (peak load). This would provide stability to power grid and also to electricity market pricing.

The orthodox approach of utilities around the world has been to keep some of the conventional power plants in idle to compensate any gap rising from reduced power output of wind and solar farms (lack of wind or sunshine). Keeping conventional power plants in idle means significantly higher costs which eventually will be passed on to the consumer/end user. It has been often the case in western countries that the consumer pays higher electricity prices due to penetration of renewables into the grid. The energy storage can be one of the viable solutions to this problem.

Recent advances in the lithium ion battery technology have facilitated deployment of large scale energy storage systems supporting power generation gaps from wind and solar farms. It is worth mentioning that deployment of bulky storage system is complex and costly since it has to manage a large amount of power swings.

The latest visible trends in energy storage are the distributed storage systems. These systems are small enough for general households or commercial buildings and can quickly be implemented in conjunction with distributed solar or wind generators. The distributed storage systems can take away the highly variable household consumption demand from the grid. It allows consumers to manage their load and power locally. The remaining load on transmission system would be mainly driven by large industrial consumers whose consumption can be better forecasted. This will reduce the idle time of conventional power plants and minimize the cost.

The cost of storage batteries has gone down by 15-20% since 2015 while their storage capacity has been doubled. It is expected that with further incentives more of residential and commercial buildings can turn to distributed storage systems and solar power. Application of local storage systems helps consumers in being conscious of their power use. Avoiding excessive consumption and energy waste can play a significant role in transition to sustainability.

Wind Farms & Rural Areas

A wind turbine captures the maximum energy with high and undisturbed wind speeds. Large buildings and structures in vicinity of wind turbines can significantly impact wind conditions and hence efficiency of the turbine. The most desirable location for onshore wind farms are the rural areas where the wind conditions are favorable for high energy capture and compared to big cities there won’t be obstacles around the farm. In addition, the developers tend to choose locations where the existing local infrastructure of roads and transmission lines can be used.

At the forum experts tried to explore the topic to identify typical worldwide known concerns in order to overcome the resistance from locals. There are numerous lessons learned from other countries that can be applied and result in gaining the support of the locals for wind farms in Kazakhstan.

The first concern that is widely observed in many countries is related to the socio-economics of the area. In many countries the typical perception communicated to locals is that having a wind farm within their area will create a significant number of local jobs. An operating wind farm can be managed only by two or three people and therefore it is a none-refutable fact that a wind farm is not a factory. In order to gain the locals’ support for wind farms and to create a positive socio-economic environment; there needs to be more than a vague promise for new jobs.

One approach could be to provide locals incentives such as a cost discount for their electricity bill. A wind farm is a revenue generating asset with 20 – 25 years of typical life time, sharing a portion of the revenue with the locals could fill the gap of not having long term jobs. Various financial models and return on investment analysis can be performed to generate the most viable economic incentives and gain the local’s support for the development. Such incentives do require long-term policies’ supported by the local governments to ensure protecting the rights of locals and ensure a sustainable business model for developers.

The second concern from locals could be about the noise and shadow flickers. Wind turbines do generate noise due to rotation of turbine blades and aerodynamic air flow passing through the rotor. The shadow flicker phenomenon is the effect of rotating turbine rotors with the sun passing behind them. There are simple methods to reduce and minimize the noise and shadow flicker of wind turbines.

The simplest approach is to ensure enough distance between the wind farms and local residencies. A typical standard used in the western countries for distance is 10 times the size of a wind turbine’s rotor (a turbine with 100m rotor should have a distance of 1km from local residences). The standard may not be effective in all areas; therefore a proper distance based on local conditions must be applied to avoid the effect of noise and shadow. In addition, readily available and proven technologies can be implemented to better control the operation of wind turbine and minimize the noise and shadow flicker.

As the two-day workshop on energy solutions for the climate change problems came to an end, it was evident that there is a strong interest in Kazakhstan for transition to sustainable energy. The Astana forum provided a platform to recognize the challenges but also outlining the viable and feasible solutions. While the technology exists to solve the climate change; the consistency in government policies supported by a flexible financial and investment mechanism are paramount.

Kazakhstan seems to well be in position to challenge the status quo and move to action regarding climate change. The republic with more than 60% of population under the age of 35 and an astonishing literacy rate of 99.8% with a vast country rich with natural resources may even be able to exceed its targets.

As a climax to this article I would like to point out the incredible high number of young Kazakhs interested in topics of sustainable business, economics, and technologies. It was impressive to see two-third of the participants and experts being female Kazakhs whose talent and tenacity would play a vital rule in transforming the republic to a sustainable energy power house of Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s transition to sustainable energy and economy does seem feasible.

I would like to thank The-DO-School, FEF 2017 and the EXPO 2017 Astana organizers for bringing together an eclectic number of experts from around the world. It has been a pleasure to meet the local entrepreneurs and business leaders to discuss climate change challenges and generate creative ideas to implement sustainable energy solutions in Kazakhstan.

About the Author:

Mr. Hanif Mashal works as Chief Engineer in one of the leading sustainable energy companies in the world (Adwen in Germany, a subsidiary of Siemens-Gamesa Renewable Energy Company).

Mr. Mashal has a very distinctive role related to designing and construction of large scale wind turbines in The United States and European Union for the past 15 years. His experience and knowledge on the subject is not only influential for sector leaders and start-ups but also very beneficial for the future of energy industry and its transformation to green. As a United States’ national, Mr. Mashal moved to Germany in 2012 to design, develop and construct Adwen’s 8MW-180 offshore wind turbine with the largest rotor ever built in the world.