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How to accelerate the pace of electrification in society

Sun energy and wind power
Published Feb 08, 2021

During a workshop in January, energy researchers from all over the country gathered to contribute to work on Sweden’s national electrification strategy. During the workshop, several concrete proposals were tabled that could accelerate the pace of the electrification of Sweden. The workshop was arranged as part of KTH’s Energy Platform initiative.

Work on Sweden’s national electrification strategy got underway in November 2020, and is set to conclude in October this year. The goal of the strategy is to increase the pace of transition to a fossil-free, sustainable society. The strategy must, among other things, produce a clear political framework, but also define areas that need to be worked on to achieve success.

The business community, government authorities, and environmental organizations were all asked to participate, and in January, KTH Energy Platform arranged a workshop in which about 40 energy researchers from all over the country participated.

The workshop was opened by Truls Borgström, co-ordinator of the electrification strategy, and Anna Ullström, who heads the Swedish government’s electrification commission.

“We need help from researchers to understand the complex shifts that are underway and these meetings play a key role in that process,” says Truls Borgström.

The electrification commission works in parallel with the strategy initiative and has an advisory role for the government. The commission is led by Thomas Enroth, Sweden’s infrastructure minister.

“Our mission is to accelerate the electrification of the transport sector - including everything from passenger transport to freight transport - although our primary focus is on road transport. Our work runs to the end of 2022,” says Anna Ullström.

The commission is focusing on developing an action plan for major roads, key transport routes identified by industry, and the electrification of transport related to major construction projects. In addition, regional electrification pilot projects are planned with government support totalling SEK 1 billion.

The workshop was held in five parallel groups matching the strategy’s five focus areas: charging infrastructure, grid capacity, electricity market, energy systems, and governance, ( click here for more detailed descriptions of each area ).

All five groups then reported their results.

Charging infrastructure

First to report back was the charging infrastructure group, where group chair Anders Nordelöf first raised the need for general acceptance that not all future charging infrastructure would be available at all times - something that respective users will have to adjust to.

At the same time, initial utilization rates are unlikely to be high everywhere, especially not for fast chargers and hydrogen stations. Some sites are unlikely to reach a utilization rate of 100 per cent, he stressed. This raises the question of how market-driven an expansion of infrastructure should be.

To prepare smaller transport operators to invest in electrification, a critical mass of charging stations is required throughout the country. Larger players may, however, be prepared to build up a charging infrastructure themselves, which will then become part of their business model.

Which type of infrastructure should be built depends on the technical solution that becomes the one that is ultimately adopted. Coverage rate depends on which technical solution becomes the dominant one.

The group’s advice was to take one problem at a time, to be flexible, and to adapt solutions gradually. They emphasized that a considerable difference exists between private motoring and commercial transport, and that needs in the transport sector also differ.

Targeted public transport investment can more quickly lead to a higher degree of electrification of society. At the same time, there may be problems in allowing different types of vehicles to use the same charging stations as public transport, as these systems are currently separate.

The biggest challenge is not an over-installation of charging stations, but whether a large number of stations are used at the same time. Therefore, more smart charging solutions are needed, as well as ways of controlling access to charging, perhaps by allowing different users to charge at different times. But for such a system to work, it would need to be very user-friendly and incorporate a degree of flexibility with alternative solutions at peak times.

Access to flexibility and freedom can be cost issues that for users are similar to today’s congestion charges: those who want to be able to charge their vehicles at any time may have to pay a premium for it.

Smart charging may also be a way to avoid power transmission issues. But as the fleet of electric vehicles grows, the grid must be able to deliver both power and energy in sufficient quantities. Key to this will be local energy storage.

How much charging infrastructure is required is determined by how often the grid is allowed to fail: what is the pain point at which people prefer fossil fuel-powered cars over electric cars?

Infrastructure expansion can be done in two ways, the group said: either piecemeal with the opportunity of basing rollout on unexpected user patterns; or a simultaneous expansion throughout the country which would create predictability for all actors. The disadvantage of the latter is the substantial investment this would require and its potential inflexibility over the long term.

In the first approach, it is more likely that the market will participate. In the second alternative, it is more likely that the state will take overall responsibility - primarily due to the substantial cost.

Grid capacity

The next group discussed the future electricity grid, with Lina Bertling Tjernberg presenting the group’s findings. The group highlighted how all aspects of electrification must be seen as a whole, including everything from charging infrastructure, network capacity, and the electricity market. Furthermore, development would be optimized if new solutions are sought across the board.

In addition, all actors must be involved, and industry’s need for electricity must also be included, not only the transport sector.

The group had several concrete proposals, especially in terms of increasing the voltage of today’s facilities. Increasing the voltage of existing systems to increase transmission capacity can be far more efficient than building new ones. Norway in particular is a pioneer in this regard. This could double the capacity of the overhead AC network from 400kV to 800kV.

Another proposal from the group was to investigate existing capacity in detail. Basic knowledge among stakeholders, especially among smaller electricity network companies, was patchy. The technology exists to investigate this and improved knowledge could lay the foundations for improved decision making in the future. Therefore, smart metres should also be introduced at more points in the grid, not only at the consumer level.

Today, too few new wind power projects are started in Sweden, the group said. If there was a strategy in place that stated Sweden was to be an energy exporter, international connecting power cables would be improved, which in turn would provide better conditions for new actors. Better conditions are needed to attract fresh investment.

The group also highlighted the need for knowledge and expertise among all actors, including smaller electricity companies. Training is needed at all levels, including improvements to university undergraduate education.

Electricity market

The third group discussed the electricity market and identified the following question as being especially important: is today’s electricity market sufficiently well-designed to support the electrification of society?

It is insufficient to have enough energy on average. Energy availability must be continuous and everywhere, the group said. This is especially true in large cities, where electricity shortages are a growing problem that results in some customers being disconnected from the electricity grid and certain industries not being allowed to grow or even establish themselves. How can the transport sector help solve this problem with its battery capacity? There is probably limited potential in the heavy transport sector to do this, although the private vehicle fleet may be better positioned to help, the group said.

Flexi-markets in the form of local electricity markets have been tested in pilot schemes in Stockholm and Uppsala, among other places. What role can cogeneration play by contributing to overall capacity?

The group emphasized that market prices must reflect resource challenges and constraints that exist in the grid, both geographically and over time. This can make it more profitable to invest in flexibility, especially in metropolitan areas. Several changes to market rules are also underway, especially in Europe.

The group also raised difficulties associated with replacing nuclear power in Sweden by 2045 with alternative technologies and maintaining the stability of the grid. Here, cogeneration could have a key role to play.

Energy systems

The next group discussed the energy grid and was led by Kristina Edström. The group emphasized a holistic approach to the electrification of society, one that focuses on the importance of having all sectors and sub-areas communicate and collaborate.

The group pointed to the role of politics in driving development by, among other things, developing new digital tools, focusing on grid capacity, and improving co-ordination where necessary.

In particular, regulations need to be reviewed so that they keep up with the rapid pace of change.

The group also said that an electrification strategy was needed for industry as well as for the transport sector, and that the work within Fossil Free Sweden should be further developed.

The market’s role in electrification is to support technological development, while it is the state’s responsibility to ensure infrastructure, overall co-ordination, and to remove obstacles to technological development. At the same time, long-term research must not be forgotten as it supports market development, both of new components and in addressing energy system issues.

To succeed in the future, different systems need to be interoperable: the electrical grid needs to be able to function with different systems for waste heat, district heating, and cogeneration.

The group also stressed the importance of taking advantage of regional initiatives that are underway, all good examples, and of sharing knowledge from such initiatives at the national level.

The use of hydrogen was also considered by the group: how green will it really be as an energy source, and are there benefits to its use in the transport sector that can be shared in various ways. Here, government incentives will be important in the future, the group said. Hydrogen will have a role where electrification is not an option.

Extensive training efforts are needed to ensure the increase in skills and reinforcement needed for the shift. Within the EU, these issues are raised with the aim of raising the level of competence in, among other things, battery production. Many more are needed here to understand everything from electrical engineering, system issues, environmental issues to human behaviour.

Governance

Rounding off the group presentations was the team whose discussions were based on societal development and governance.

The transition from a large centralized grid to small-scale local grids creates several issues, group members said. There are technical challenges, but also a number of challenges in terms of regulation, planning, and areas of responsibility.

Additional expertise is needed that can translate research results into policy. In addition, dialogue between research and officials/political decisions need to be streamlined, at the same time as more contact areas are needed that are also kept more active over time.

In particular, research needs more knowledge about society’s needs to be able to contribute its solutions.

If we are to succeed with the fourth electrification of society, the state needs to take an active role, the group emphasized. There are several risks of relying too heavily on market opportunity to drive change. At the same time, a complex division of roles is required, one that creates substantial scope for innovation. Specifically, this requires that the state listens to the large number of new actors that are emerging rather than simply existing ones.

The group identified a substantial need for testbeds, but the prerequisite for these needs to be clearer in terms of what would be expected of them and what support is available for their implementation.

Universities and colleges can contribute more to the skills development that is needed, especially in terms of lifelong learning, the group said. But even here, it needs to be clearer how this would be achieved.

Energy Platform director, Lina Bertling Tjernberg, concluded by highlighting how clearly all groups emphasized a need for more knowledge. Knowledge about existing technologies and new ones that are under development. In addition, access to technology and smart tools is needed to gather and use knowledge that is available, she said. In addition, more solutions are needed for different locations, where different technologies may be relevant in different regions. At the same time, all the good examples that are out there need to be highlighted so they can be shared throughout the country.

She concluded by stating that dialogue would continue and urged all researchers who were unable to participate on site to send in their views directly to the commission’s email addresses: i.elektrifieringsstrategi@regeringskansliet.se  and/or i.elektrifieringskommissionen@regeringskansliet.se .

The workshop was organized as part of KTH’s Energy Platform, which also hosted the meeting. Here you find  the agenda for the workshop including the fem group discussion areas and discussion leaders.  

Text by: Magnus Trogen Pahlén