Renewables: What have we learned so far?

WSP’s renewable experts share their thoughts on recent developments and provide guidance on the challenges that lie ahead in the industry. 

With undeniable evidence supporting paths to cleaner, cheaper energy, the spotlight on the power of renewables continues to intensify. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electricity derived from renewable sources rose by 7% in 2018, accounting for more than a quarter of total power generation. And while a wide array of factors influence transition to renewable energy from region to region, growth is indisputable across the globe.

To better understand the road that lies ahead, we asked five WSP experts from different regions to share what they have learned so far about renewable energy. To put things in perspective, we recapped what our experts said - Dan Manderson (Australia), Rob Istchenko (Canada), Richard Lappin (Middle East), Tim Rippon (UK), and Mike Huisenga (US) - under four main themes: analysis, planning, execution, and management

1. Analysis

In-depth analysis is the first essential step to any successful renewable energy project, and the key to validating all subsequent work. Data derived from a multitude of sources, including mapping, performance modelling, technological and technical analysis, site surveys, economic analysis, energy yield modelling and more, must be interpreted by stakeholders and used to support decisions and establish targets.

Counting the costs: Technology and infrastructure costs have fallen significantly in recent years, but leveraging those advantages into an overall cost-effective plan remains a challenge. As component prices rapidly fall, previously unprofitable projects are becoming economically feasible. Yet, careful analysis is critical to ensuring that the power of every dollar invested is maximized.

“In wind power for example, one turbine today produces as much energy as three turbines did a few years ago,” notes Rob Istchenko. “That represents significant cost savings when taking the cost of building foundations and the associated infrastructure into account.”

The grid is king: One thing is crystal clear - connection to the grid is crucial. Successful transition to a renewable energy supply cannot be fulfilled without leveraging elements of the existing power structure. With power infrastructure around the world varying in that respect, grid analysis must be a precursor to planning.

“You might have a great project with excellent wind resource, backed by abundant investment, but you still need to connect to the grid for reliability,” explains Tim Rippon. “If a project is located too far from the grid, transmission losses and the costs of the grid works can be detrimental to the feasibility of the entire project.” 

However, Tim notes that the transmission losses (as well as other renewable energy system losses) also creates opportunities to maximize the site rated capacity to achieve the highest possible power export at the net metering point.

Policies and regulations: The long-term stability of any renewable power project is dependent upon policies that quickly adapt to changing market conditions. Collaborative environments where industry and government work closely together are most conducive to investor confidence, however, not all markets work the same. 
“National markets are all very different, which presents unique challenges in every region,” explains Dan Manderson. “In Australia, for instance, there has been a policy void for several years, resulting in a patchwork that lacks consistency across the country.”

Transmission lines

2. Planning

Energy investment requires long-term planning, with a master plan that looks beyond the challenges of immediate transition to incorporate future scalability. Planning must also ensure that stakeholder goals and strategies align with the overall business environment for many years to come.

“When a project is being pushed to get completed, it can fall off in the delivery phase,” says Dan Manderson. “Planning for a renewable energy project needs to incorporate much more than just the lowest costs.”

Think ahead: With technology advancing rapidly, chances are that the technology identified for use in the early stages of a project will be outdated by the time construction begins.

A good example of this can be seen in the case of bifacial solar panels. WSP recently wrote a technical briefing note on their commercial use, where we address different elements relating to the technology, from mounting structure heights to row spacing, and from plant layout to economic analysis.

“It is inevitable that new, more efficient technology is just around the corner, so planning needs to account for the integration of new technology later on in the process, without disrupting everything,” says Rob Istchenko. “That requires flexibility and forward thinking, with as little commitment to any one specific technology as possible.”

Storing for the future: Energy storage technology is another rapidly evolving area that is reshaping the industry. With the ability to apply excess power generated during the day to critical resources at night, energy storage developments are transforming business models, with new incentive schemes being integrated into the equation. In February 2019, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, switched on “the world’s largest virtual battery plant,” with a capacity to store 648 MWh of power in order to balance grid demand and keep the city supplied for up to six hours in the event of an outage.

“Working in the Middle East, we have learned that when the region goes renewable, it goes big, and scale has important implications,” says Richard Lappin. “With national Renewable Energy programs requiring investment in the range of $55-60 billion, long-term planning is essential for protecting the investment and ensuring that scalability is facilitated for many years to come.”

3. Execution

With a solid master plan in hand, the focus shifts to execution, and all facets of a renewable strategy must unfold according to that plan. The execution phase requires intense attention to detail in order to avoid seemingly minor issues that can have enormous consequences.

Keep it simple: Simple things, not necessarily related to design or engineering, can go wrong and lead to major impacts. Undetected micro-cracks in offloaded solar panels, or poorly laid cables, can easily reduce the efficiency of an entire project.

“Being careful and implementing robust quality control during construction and installation from the start can have major benefits on a project for 25 years or more,” notes Tim Rippon. “It’s important to have a partner who understands the whole process and can act as an Owner’s Engineer or Independent Engineer.”

Think local: Complete reliance on international developers with little local knowledge can raise obstacles to the attainment of renewable energy goals. Lack of familiarity with local complexities of regulatory, labour, climate, grid connection, and other issues can lead stakeholders back to the planning table.

“Projects get delayed because of lack of local knowledge,” says Dan Manderson. “Therefore, it’s essential to have the evaluation and risk assessment performed by a local firm that knows and understands the local market.”

Wind turbine - moose lake spider foundation

Innovate to create: Value engineering is a process by which the value of a project can be maximized by either improving the functions of its components, or by reducing their costs. Leveraging our detailed design services, WSP has assisted clients in cutting the concrete volumes of a typical foundation of a wind turbine by up to 60%, resulting in significant cost savings.

Nevertheless, when some clients reach consensus on moving forward with a project, the pressure to see their projects go live and meet a target commercial operation date can often outweigh the benefits afforded by an extended value engineering phase. The rush to build projects more quickly, however, has created incentives for engineering firms to innovate in other ways.

The firms that have been able to scale their businesses by quickly training and assimilating new teams, taking additional scope under management, and expanding their operations geographically have been the winners in the fast-paced renewables industry. 

“In these situations with highly compressed design schedules, we shift our focus from technical innovation to quality management and project team coordination to ensure we are meeting our clients’ expectations when the stakes are high,” says Mike Huisenga.

4. Management

Asset management, production planning, monitoring, and forecasting all present challenges as renewable energy projects move forward. Efficient power grid management, for instance, requires accurate forecasting models, incorporating machine learning and data analytics to enable rapid adjustment and grid stability.

Grid stability: When renewable energy sources are lacking, utilities turn to the grid to compensate for windless or cloudy days. Sometimes the grid will require reinforcement, or perhaps an infusion of spinning reserve, derived from generators already connected to the grid. 
“In the Middle East, the ability to keep the grid stable in adverse conditions is something that the region will need to deal with,” notes Richard Lappin. “WSP wrote the grid code in Kuwait, so we know what we’re talking about.”

Leveraging smart technology: Emerging smart grid technologies enable communication between energy suppliers and consumers, creating an interaction that serves all stakeholders by reducing consumption costs and allowing more accurate grid stability forecasting.

“In Canada, WSP helps clients provide wind data to the Alberta Electric System Operator, providing essential information to assist the system operator in accurately forecasting and planning to meet demand,” explains Rob Istchenko.

A stitch in time: While renewables are mostly immune to fluctuating market prices that affect oil, gas, and other fossil fuels, time is money. With an intricate system of contributing assets, such as wind turbines and solar panels, downtime is one of the most detrimental obstacles to the ongoing operational efficiency of a power network. New technologies focus on careful monitoring of system performance, providing valuable forecasts of maintenance issues and ensuring that downtime is limited. 

Asset management within a renewable energy system also extends beyond physical plants to include policy monitoring, data collection, and a host of other processes throughout the lifecycle of the system’s assets.

Renewables asset management requires the expertise of an asset management partner, and WSP’s energy experts can help manage all aspects, while developing solutions for maximizing efficiency and improving long-term reliability

And now what?

With the IEA projecting a 50% increase in the global supplies of renewable electricity between 2019 and 2024, there is no doubt that the time is now. In addition to meeting global demands for reduced emissions and the promise of a cleaner, brighter future, the business case for renewables points to cheaper energy production.

Resistance arguments are losing steam as the reduction of costs and the emergence of new digital technologies pave the way to more profitable operations and increased investment.

“In the past, projects were sometimes underperforming in comparison to expectations, but things have changed to a point where industry estimates are quite good today,” notes Rob Istchenko. “This provides more certainty, which is good for business.”

WSP has delivered a diverse portfolio of renewable energy projects around the world from our many legacy companies and centers of excellence. Each of these groups have developed their own niche area of expertise based on their clientele and local market demand. “One of the truly exciting things about WSP right now is seeing this global community of experts come together in a collaborative delivery approach to meet the challenges of this rapidly evolving market. It is this process of bringing the best of what WSP has to offer to each of our projects that has allowed us to build trust with key clients and deliver reliably high-quality service,” remarks Mike Huisenga.

We know that our clients are increasingly looking for firms that can support them with every single scope, leverage a deep internal bench of experts and follow them around the world as they enter new markets. This is why WSP will be at the center of many of the most challenging and exciting projects in the next chapter of the renewable energy growth story.  

Our one-stop approach comprises a complete range of multidisciplinary engineering services, project management, and energy environmental solutions, and our proven track record and comprehensive portfolio make us the energy experts of choice.

Contact Dan Manderson, Robert Istchenko, Richard Lappin, Tim Rippon and Mike Huisenga

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