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From Stantec ERA: Old for the new - Investing in our past to create a clean energy future

June 30, 2020

By Mario Finis

The world’s existing energy infrastructure is key to meeting renewable energy goals

The cameras capture a row of local leaders posing with gleaming golden shovels in an open field. They are celebrating the start of construction on a new solar farm. Or a new wind farm. Or a battery field. This scene is taking place around the world as communities celebrate their progress in developing new renewable energy generation to help lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

But to reach that cleaner energy future, we need more than just new construction. Investment in our existing infrastructure is also needed to achieve our energy goals safely and reliably—and, it can get us there faster and cheaper too. Our existing power plants, power lines, distribution systems, and other energy system components are getting older each day, and they weren’t built to handle the new demands being placed on them. 

We cannot build our way to a clean energy future overnight—we must rebuild existing infrastructure as well. Rebuilding and upgrading our energy infrastructure will get the most out of our existing assets and create a solid foundation for the future. The energy market’s existing infrastructure is critical to meeting renewable energy goals. It needs to be redesigned, upgraded, and optimized in order to meet those clean energy goals and increase resiliency. 

For decades, the American Society of Civil Engineers has issued reports on the state of our infrastructure in the United States. Year after year, the energy sector has received dismal grades. This is not a new issue, but it is an urgent issue as we fall further behind in the race to save our planet.

Our existing power plants, power lines, distribution systems, and other energy system components are getting older each day, and they weren’t built to handle the new demands being placed on them.

Our electric system is not being used as originally intended

Most of the world’s existing infrastructure is being pushed to their design extremes.

The push to build wind farms and solar facilities is changing the characteristics of our power supply. Most electrical grids were designed around a centralized energy source like a coal, nuclear, or hydropower facility. Now, as we push to smaller distributed energy sources like wind and solar, our grids must be redesigned to maintain safe and reliable power delivery. Instead of a centralized plant distributing energy to the end-user, power is now being pushed back onto the grid. Power must now flow in two directions on a system that was designed for only one direction.

The largest global source of renewable energy is hydropower. A vast majority of these facilities were built in the 1950s and 60s. Now, these facilities are forced to run on one of two extremes. Extreme weather is causing reservoirs to fill to capacity, requiring emergency spillways to be used—sometimes with damaging results. And during times of extreme drought, reservoirs are low and plants are forced to run at lower levels, less efficiently than originally designed. Because there isn’t enough energy storage, the intermittent nature of new renewables (generating only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing) is causing existing plants to start and stop much more frequently. This causes additional wear and tear and affects today’s largest form of energy storage—pumped storage hydroelectric plants. 

We must review and adapt our existing energy infrastructure if we hope to achieve our goals of clean and sustainable energy sources.

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Extreme drought at Lake Mead, Nevada.

Making our existing energy sources cleaner

If a community has a goal to be 100% renewable by 2050, how will they be powered for the next 20 or 30 years before they reach that goal? Natural gas is often cited as the ‘bridge’ fuel to get us to our ambitious goals. A sound gas energy infrastructure is vital to our clean energy future. Making sure that existing energy infrastructure is in good condition helps us reach our goals safely and reliably.

Many energy providers are converting powerplants from burning coal to using cleaner, cheaper natural gas. How do we transport gas to these powerplants safely and efficiently? Pipelines.

Pipelines have tremendous benefits beyond carrying fuels to power plants. For one, pipeline infrastructure lessens the amount of fuel being transported by road or rail, reducing vehicle exhaust emissions and improving traffic safety. And if we invest in our existing pipelines, we can reduce methane leaks—which could have some of the biggest benefits on reducing greenhouse gases globally.

We must acknowledge the energy transition taking place. Our existing energy sources are critical to bridging the gap to a 100% clean energy future. 

A sound gas energy infrastructure is vital to our clean energy future.

Reducing inefficiencies and increasing performance

We need to use our infrastructure at its optimal capacity if we hope to achieve a clean energy future. With upgrades to existing systems, we can take proven energy forms and make them more efficient. We need to keep our baseload energy stable to maintain reliability while adding new sources like wind and solar power. 

We need to use our infrastructure at its optimal capacity if we hope to achieve a clean energy future. With upgrades to existing systems, we can take proven energy forms and make them more efficient.

According the DNV-GL, an international accredited register, “efficiency gains play a far greater role in helping to cut emissions over the coming two decades than the combined contribution of the switch to wind, solar, and electric vehicles.”

We are not only seeing this in the power industry but on mine sites as well. This is key because the materials needed to fuel our green revolution all must be mined. The precious metals in solar panels to lithium in storage batteries and electric vehicles are found in the ground, so mine sites must continue to operate efficiently in order to extract them. The trouble is: Many of these sites have been in operation for over 50 years. So, it is essential that we upgrade equipment and technology to make these sites more sustainable and energy efficient.

Additionally, upgrading existing hydropower facilities with the newest, most efficient turbines could increase production by 30% or more. And, investing in our power system with upgrades such as high voltage direct current (HVDC) technology could make distribution easier, safer, and more efficient.

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“Efficiency gains play a far greater role in helping to cut emissions over the coming two decades than the combined contribution of the switch to wind, solar and electric vehicles.” DNV-GL (an international accredited register).

Rebuilding a cleaner energy future

The resources dedicated to reducing emissions and building a clean energy future must include an investment in our existing infrastructure. While new construction may get the headlines and the limelight, re-building and re-configuring our existing infrastructure is necessary, and, in most cases, faster and cheaper.

Enhancing our existing infrastructure is the best chance we have in combating climate change before it’s too late.  

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  • Mario  Finis

    Mario is the executive vice president for Stantec’s Energy & Resources business.. He is committed to clear open and honest communication, understanding how important it is that he be a trusted advisor to his clients and his team.

    Contact Mario
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