IPG’s Toby Gill talks with our Advisory Board members Ian Marchant and Nigel Ellis about how IPG’s technology can contribute to delivering the flexibility and resilience we need in a grid that is increasingly reliant on wind and solar.
Toby Gill: We often talk about the role of our Flameless Ceramic Turbine in providing pollutant-free, low-cost power from any renewable fuel, where grid access and capacity is constrained. But, the value of our technology extends beyond grid-independent applications.
Fuel-based power has always played a vital role in balancing our electricity grid. As IPG works to reinvent fuel-based power for the renewable future, how can our technology help to develop an energy system that is secure, reliable and environmentally sustainable?
Nigel Ellis: As you just said, grid flexibility and resilience is not a new challenge our energy system is facing. We have always needed a series of mechanisms, be that distributed power generation or incentivising power providers to turn off their supply, to balance local intermittency and peaks in demand. We need that flexibility in our grid to ensure we don’t have too much or too little supply, which can cause power outages.
Now, we are transitioning from a centralised electricity grid, powered by fossil fuels, to one that is principally powered by wind and solar. The distributed and variable nature of this power generation is making resilience and flexibility all the more challenging.
Ian Marchant: As for why is it important? Of the many things taken for granted in developed economies, a secure and reliable electricity grid is certainly one.
This service is predicated on our ability to regulate power generation so that supply matches demand on a second-by-second basis. Whilst, wind and solar offer us some of the greenest, and cheapest, power generation available, what they cannot do is generator power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
I think we are all quite clear about the consequences for our planet if we don’t decarbonise our energy systems. But the consequences of a grid that cannot effectively, and economically, balance this fluctuating supply will have an impact on our industries, our productivity and therefore our economy, which in turn has a real human cost.
Nigel Ellis: Exactly. You have to be a certain age to remember the 3-day working week in the 1970’s – but that is what happens when our energy supply is not reliable.
This is why resilience is so important right now.
Toby Gill: I agree, if we don’t have worry about maintaining a functioning economy, then solving climate change would an easier challenge.
So, the big issue facing grid operators today is about finding the most optimised combination of available technologies to decarbonise our energy system in the most rapid and economical way.
Spending only 5 minutes online, you will develop the sense that all we need to solve this problem is wind, solar and energy storage, principally in the form of batteries. This is the narrative that IPG is trying to challenge.
From your perspective, how does the integration of fuel-based power help us achieve a more optimised energy system, and how does IPG’s technology make this possible?
Spending only 5 minutes online, you will develop the sense that all we need to solve this problem is wind, solar and energy storage, principally in the form of batteries. This is the narrative that IPG is trying to challenge. - Toby Gill
Nigel Ellis: Even today, we use diesel generators and open-cycle natural gas turbines, plugged into local transformers, to balance the short-term and localised variations in power consumption. But, clearly, the carbon and pollutant emissions associated with these fuels and technologies are no longer compatible with our climate change ambitions.
But if we remove fuel-based power from our energy system, we will need to install far more battery storage than we need on a daily basis to ensure we always have the back-up power needed to balance the variable outputs of wind and solar. That quickly becomes a highly uneconomic approach.
The technological advances of IPG’s turbine, in flameless combustion and high-temperature ceramics, create a product unlike anything in the market today. It gives us a way to continue to benefit from the demand-responsive, dispatchable properties of fuel-based power generation, but without the pollutants and emissions typical of existing solutions.
The technological advances of IPG’s turbine, in flameless combustion and high-temperature ceramics, create a product unlike anything in the market today. It gives us a way to continue to benefit from the demand-responsive, dispatchable properties of fuel-based power generation, but without the pollutants and emissions typical of existing solutions. - Nigel Ellis
Ian Marchant: Building on that, IPG’s technology does something that battery storage simply cannot.
Battery storage does have a specific role to play in our future energy mix, but they will not solve every problem. Even little blips in supply or voltage fluctuations can inhibit our ability to provide secure and reliable power – and, to be fair, this is exactly where battery storage is uniquely placed to resolve this.
They are great at balancing those second-by-second or minute-by-minute variations and they also have a role in managing the intermittency on a 24- or 48-hour cycle. But what about the longer timeframes? How many batteries would we need to install to balance that intermittency, day-by-day, week-by-week or even season-by-season?
Toby Gill: So what you are saying Ian is, that in the same way batteries can optimise our system and reduce the amount of wind and solar infrastructure, fuel-based power allows us to optimise it even further.
Ian Marchant: Exactly - wind, solar and battery storage are not the most optimised or cost-effective system we can create. We need a fuel-based technology to provide that level of resilience that batteries cannot. But it must be done so in a way that doesn’t contradict the decarbonisation goals of switching to wind and solar in the first place.
This is where IPG’s product comes in. Not only does it remove the pollutant emissions from using fuels, it also enables us to move away from natural gas and diesel without high risks and costs.
The likes of hydrogen or biofuels can offer a more energy dense and more cost-effective medium for providing that net-zero carbon resilience, compared to batteries. But there are challenges to using renewable fuels today, challenges IPG’s product has been designed to overcome them.
This is where IPG’s product comes in. Not only does it remove the pollutant emissions from using fuels, it also enables us to move away from natural gas and diesel without high risks and costs. - Ian Marchant
Toby Gill: That is true. In aiming to reinvent fuel-based power for the renewable future, we had to overcome the fact that no one really know what fuel will be the “fuel of the future”. Whilst hydrogen is dominating this narrative, the most abundant and economical renewable fuel available could be different depending on the time of year or location in the world.
This is why developing a system that is able to operate on any fuel, be that hydrogen, biogas, or even ammonia, was important. Our flameless combustion technology also then enabled us to eliminate the pollutant emissions that are usually a by-product of fuelled combustion.
This allows our product to directly compete not only with the diesel generator, but also with the hydrogen fuel cell.
Nigel Ellis: We know how to make electricity cheaper and we have seen aggressive cost reductions in wind and solar power over the last few years. What we are still relying on is expensive technologies, like batteries, or even hydrogen fuel cells, to solve the resilience and flexibility problems that that generates. IPG’s technology can be disruptive to this market.
Everyone is familiar with the levelized cost of energy, but what about the levelized cost of resilience? We could perhaps create a whole new category there – IPG’s turbine delivers an overall lower cost of providing that resilience than any other technology available today.
This Q&A session has been edited for this format.