FlexTech: how to get the Island of Ireland’s grid renewables-ready

Published November 2019

The FlexTech plan for renewables integration risks locking us into a business-as-usual mindset. Rapid decarbonisation means being bolder – Read Felicity Jones’ analysis here:

FlexTech is the much-needed initiative for renewables integration on the Island of Ireland, adopting a 2030 view. But the programme risks locking us into a business-as-usual mindset. In this blog, Everoze advocates a more strategic, imaginative approach.

The signals on FlexTech were promising: here was a bold innovation initiative set up by the system operators to meet the 2030 challenge for renewables integration.

“Fantastic” I thought. “This is what we need!” The next decade is going to see huge growth in solar, storage, onshore and offshore wind – plus exciting new cross-vector and digital solutions. If you need convincing on the disruptive potential, just check out the recent DS3 frequency response tender where batteries came in dirt-cheap at <€60k/MW/yr. Now is absolutely the time to be thinking imaginatively about future power system operation.

Yet when the FlexTech consultation was finally published, I’ll confess to being a little disappointed. The questions were prosaic and piecemeal: seeking feedback on a series of minor tweaks to be implemented in the next year.

Yes, most of these tweaks are necessary – and many are urgent. But at Everoze we feel that the challenge of achieving 70% renewables by 2030 demands strategic thinking too. So this blog is our consultation response. It’s informed by our experience supporting flex providers/investors providing DS3 services; sitting on the Open Networks Advisory Group; the Customer Engagement Group for Western Power Distribution; expert advice to the Next Generation programme, and more.

First off: let’s frame the challenge more broadly

We challenge the implicit assumptions underpinning FlexTech:

  • Business as usual tweaks –> Thinking bigger picture: The FlexTech questions are framed around existing processes; for instance, the question on Qualification Trial Process asks ‘which technology groups do you believe the system operator should focus on?’ By contrast, Everoze advocates being open to reforms, not just tweaks. So our question is not ‘which technology groups?’, but rather ‘is the Qualification Trial Process fit for purpose in the longer-term?’ This would open up new possibilities such as greater scrutiny of operational data, and methodologies informed by the statistical characteristics of portfolios.
  • Technology specific –> Technology agnostic: FlexTech is structured around five broad tech propositions: hybrids, renewables, storage, DSR, and large energy user solutions. But whilst unconscious biases to new technical solutions absolutely must be addressed, Everoze advocates focusing on grid challenges and market frameworks, and taking a portfolio, tech-neutral view.
  • Control and predict –> mechanisms to manage uncertainty: The ‘controllability’ of assets is a clear concern for the system operators; and where direct control is not possible, the system operators emphasis on predictability. But our energy transition brings inherent uncertainties; as a result, we believe it’s essential to invest not just in prediction, but also in mechanisms to manage uncertainty too, for instance pricing in option value.

The bigger picture

So here’s what we recommend:

  1. Address strategy, tactics and culture – not just operational quick wins. Low hanging fruit is great, but long-term reforms can be tasty too: 70% renewables requires imagination, not just tweaks. For instance, given critical grid constraint issues, should we be exploring new markets to trade network capacity, as probed in Project LEO (Everoze is on the Plug-In Board)?
  2. Resource FlexTech appropriately to deliver – so we don’t go over the same ground again and again: Industry has been frustrated by the start-stop Hybrid Projects Working Group, which sought to address the challenges of renewables+storage co-location. The delays to this group have been painful, and have certainly complicated Everoze’s technical advice to developers on battery retrofits. Let’s avoid similar frustration by ensuring that FlexTech is sufficiently resourced.
  3. Complement FlexTech with a portfolio of innovation projects – to test ideas as we go: Rather than embarking on a centralised plan, we need to embrace the uncertainty inherent in innovation, and fund a portfolio of experiments. What we need is swarm governance – where actors can freely explore in the field, gather data and share it for rapid feedback, swarming on solutions.

Everoze has been feeding our ideas into the IWEA FlexTech working group – and we’d love to connect with others exploring these topics. My colleague Daniel Bacon is pursuing this from an offshore wind perspective, other Everozians are probing implications for onshore wind, solar, storage and DSR.

This matters: our grid must be ready for 70% renewables by 2030. Business-as-usual tweaks will only get us so far.

Creative solutions are not some optional add-on: they’re a necessity.

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