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Europe’s Energy Transition Megatrends and Tipping Points, Part V: Globalisation and Regionalisation of Energy Resources

Mark Livingstone — September 2, 2016

Oil and Gas ProductionJan Vrins coauthored this post.

In our initial blog on Europe’s energy transition, we discussed seven megatrends that are fundamentally changing how we produce and use power. Here we discuss how the globalisation and regionalisation of energy resources is fundamentally changing the European energy industry.

What’s Happening?

The EU is actively aiming to deliver on Europe’s 2030 climate and energy targets while ensuring security of supply and affordable prices. The EU also seeks to be a world leader in renewable energy. Achieving these goals requires a transformation of Europe’s electricity system. To assist in this transformation, the EU must achieve a balance of meeting consumers’ expectations, delivering benefits from new technologies, and facilitating investments in low-carbon generation while also recognising the interdependence of member states. A critical part of this initiative is connecting isolated national and regional electricity systems to secure supply to help achieve a truly integrated EU-wide energy market—a key enabler for the continent and one that goes well beyond precursors such as Nord Pool. While the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU raises a number of questions about future policy, it is too early to say what effect Brexit will have on the United Kingdom’s participation in the EU’s future single energy market. (The United Kingdom has, however, been an enthusiastic proponent of this to date.) What is clear is that a focus on greater levels of interconnection (both offshore and onshore) and energy efficiency will continue to be necessary aspects of EU energy policy—and ones that receive much scrutiny.

To get access to the necessary energy supply and resources, more regions, countries, energy markets, and utilities—including those in Europe—are looking beyond the traditional borders of their energy business and territory.

What’s Driving This Change?

The main drivers behind this globalisation and regionalisation of energy resources are:

  • Access to cheaper natural gas globally
  • Accelerated shift of generation resources to renewables, which requires greater system flexibility to maintain security of supply
  • Economic and political imperatives for energy import and export

Access to Cheap Natural Gas Globally

Driven by a technology breakthrough applied in the field, shale gas has transformed the North American gas market and stands poised to significantly affect the global gas market in the future. On February 24, 2016, for the first time in history, liquefied natural gas (LNG) from North America was exported from the contiguous United States—from the Cheniere Sabine Pass facility in Louisiana—to Europe, a historic moment in the North American gas industry.

Globally diverse sources of natural gas and increased movement of these sources—in the form of LNG by ship—is becoming increasingly prevalent from places far from one another. As Australia, the United States, and Canada follow Qatar with plans to export LNG in large volumes, the global gas market is poised for a renaissance. Although the LNG industry has been a victim of its own success as prices have declined, the growing availability of gas to global markets is set to impact places that never previously had access. This movement is bringing with it the opportunity for new gas-powered industries such as petrochemicals and an increased availability of cleaner gas-fired power generation to people and places around the world.

Extensive European infrastructure for gas transmission, including pipelines and new LNG facilities, is helping ensure that cheap gas will be available in most parts of Europe. There is a lag effect as to how this impacts gas generation development; however, in the short to medium term, it at least underpins gas’ ability to remain a key fuel source for heating, industrial use, and flexible power generation. While the latter use may fly in the face of carbon targets, with questions around new nuclear and other baseload low-carbon generation, the net reduction from replacing coal with gas is still significant and may prove to be at least a convenient bridging arrangement.

Accelerated Shift of Generation Resources to Renewables

In Part III of this series, we discussed the changing generation mix across Europe. Virtually all net growth in recent years has come from renewables. To achieve this while managing the system security of supply requires much greater flexibility in the way the electricity systems are managed across Europe. Flexibility is essential and the key underpinnings of this are interconnection, storage, and demand response. To date, the most prevalent of these has been the rapid growth in interconnection—for example, the import of French nuclear power to support Germany’s solar boom and the HVDC interconnection to enable the United Kingdom and Denmark to rapidly develop their wind generation sector. It can be argued that without access to hydro reserves from Norway and Sweden, neither country would be able to accelerate their current offshore wind program. This interconnectedness is a strength of the European system, but it also means that, in effect, each nation relies on others for their ultimate security of supply. In the future, the impact of storage will complement this and aid renewables integration and system stability. Storage and the ongoing development of demand response will also lead to local regionalisation, whereby markets at a more local level are necessary to deal with increasingly decentralized generation and the local flexibility enabled by smarter metering.

Economic and Political Imperatives

The third driver may be obvious to some but is the most challenging to achieve in practice in many ways. Greater affordability for consumers across Europe is promoted through a more regional approach to energy supply. However, macroeconomic theory and national politics do not always pull in this same direction. It sounds simple for Norway to increase its exports to the United Kingdom via a new interconnector as both countries gain overall; however, if this leads to higher wholesale prices in Norway through a reduced surplus, then consumers may see an impact on their retail price. To date the economic efficiency of Europe’s market coupling has proven a sound platform for rapidly improving the regionalisation of energy resources across the continent while political will has held firm in most respects. Some initiatives such as the North Sea Grid may work on a region-wide basis yet do not translate into a commercial rationale that leads to specific profitable projects for investors. Given the importance of a united energy policy for maintaining affordability and energy security across the continent, this needs to remain a critical area of policy and regulatory attention as 2030 targets come firmly into focus.

So What Does This Mean?

It is worth reminding ourselves of the underlying objectives as defined by Europe’s Energy Union:

  • Electricity systems will become more reliable, with lower risk of blackouts.
  • Money will be saved by reducing the need to build new power stations.
  • Consumers’ increased choice will put downward pressure on household bills.
  • Electricity grids will be able to better manage increasing levels of renewables, particularly variable renewables like wind and solar.

Looking forward, the EU market, national policymakers, and utilities first need to adapt their long-term resource plans and incorporate regional scenarios for power supply, while also building in a rapidly changing fuel resource mix toward renewables and natural gas. Second, they must think outside the box with regard to securing fuel or access to renewables well beyond their traditional territory borders. Third, to effectively develop system plans, the planning processes need to take into account the entire regional transmission system. Regional entities should find a way to bring together players such as distribution network operators, municipalities, and other smaller industry players to ensure their needs are also addressed and more holistic solutions are presented. Finally, to facilitate and enhance emerging market offerings such as enterprise information management, the planning toolkit needs to expand to better address the challenges of large-scale renewables integration across multiple regions.

This post is the sixth in a series in which we discuss each of the power industry megatrends and the impacts (“so what?”) in more detail. Our next blog will be about merging industries and new entrants. Stay tuned.

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