SSCP-DTP student Jonathan Bosch reveals his insights into modelling the growth of renewable energy technologies at the International Energy Agency.
At the end of May 2015, I had just sweated my way through the most important meeting of my PhD so far, in which I attempted to prove my worth as a researcher. As a reward for surviving this gladiatorial feat, just eight months into my PhD, I jumped on a train to Paris to spend the summer months on an internship at the prestigious International Energy Agency (IEA).
Initially suggested by my supervisor, I wasn’t convinced that this internship was right for me, since the proposed work wasn’t directly related to my PhD topic – which focuses more on the architecture of energy systems models rather than modelling the input technologies. I quickly realised however that it would give me some real world experience in the energy sector, having myself come from a mechanical engineering background in a previous life. It also gave me the opportunity to use my dormant engineering skills in an as yet unfamiliar endeavor, but nevertheless involving the modelling of renewable energy technologies.
A model for global energy
My assignment was to help to improve the characterisation of these technologies in the ETP-TIMES model, which is used in the IEA’s flagship Energy Technology Perspectives publication. Released annually, this report makes policy recommendations to member governments and serves as an invaluable reference for energy sector actors to keep up to date with the latest energy sector trends.
ETP-TIMES is a global energy systems model which deploys a portfolio of energy technologies within a minimum system cost framework – with the explicit aim of identifying the most economical outcome for society. It applies “back-casting” and forecasting to lay out pathways to a desirable energy system. Forecasts in three scenarios, spanning the period from now until 2050, make it possible to identify milestones that need to be reached, trends that need to be addressed, and ultimately, highlight technologies that require investment in order for the eventual system objectives to be reached.
An important finding from the model, publicised in recent editions of the ETP, is that achieving the 2 degree target does not require the deployment of breakthrough technologies. But it does predict an electricity generation transition to at least 60% renewable sources in the global energy mix by 2050 (ETP 2015).
Encouraging investment in renewables
But, as I came to realise, not all technologies are necessarily treated equally by the model. Renewable energy technologies may face obstacles to investment because their dilute energy generation densities and intermittent production are typically dealt with in the same way that coal-fired power stations have historically been employed.
For example, the building of a new coal plant delivers a predictable and tunable power supply to quench a specific tranche of energy demand. Whereas renewable sources cannot currently offer such assurances, and significantly, have to be located where they can best access natural resources, such as wind or solar irradiation. That being said, they do offer significant wins in energy security, cost and sustainability; aspects which are not necessarily considered in modelling systems built for twentieth century technologies.
Our objective therefore was to integrate the detailed characteristics of renewable technologies into the model. We wanted to increase the likelihood that renewable technologies would be invoked by the model based on a fair appraisal of their strengths – essentially, increasing their competitiveness in the model in accordance with real world factors as outlined above.
In order to achieve this, I set out to analyse renewable energy potentials on a geographical basis. I employed many new skills in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), and writing code in the statistical programming system, R, which led me to be able to produce global technical potentials in the 26 regions (where countries are grouped in a somewhat logical manner) of the modelling framework.
My work at this stage now provides a methodology for integrating renewable potentials into global models, where a region’s electricity production potential is dependent on spatially and temporally diffuse renewable resources. It places renewables within a cost dimension that countries and investors can exploit systematically (in the model at least).
Farewell to Paris
On reflection, my summertime experience in Paris was undoubtedly valuable. Professionally, it allowed me time to build analysis skills that will be useful in my future work; I was able to distil much of my work into more than one academic publication, all the while giving me fruitful avenues for exploration later on. Furthermore, I forged lasting relationships, both professional and personal, at one of the most authoritative energy organisations, and in one of the most beautiful cities, in the world.
Personally, if anyone thinks interns don’t have any fun, they’re wrong – but that’s for another blog post. I’ll tell you one thing: a picnic lunch on Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel tower, is highly recommended!
Jonathan is studying for his PhD as part of the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP. Find out more about fully funded PhD opportunities for 2016 (deadline 18 January 2016)