The value of new energy systems
If the transition to a sustainable energy supply is to succeed, an integrated approach that includes research into ethical and societal aspects is required. Several projects are being carried out in the NWO-MVI research programme in this field, and project leaders Rolf Künneke and Machiel Mulder tell us about their research.
Offshore wind parks
Rolf Künneke, professor of Economics of Infrastructure at Delft University of Technology, considers the ethical and societal values associated with offshore wind parks in relation to the legislatory and regulatory frameworks in the sector. “Our researchers, who come from various disciplines, find concrete ways of applying values such as sustainability and safety to the design of offshore wind systems.”
“Take, for example, the fact that TenneT will be responsible for construction of the electricity grid in the North Sea,” he continues. “Apparently, we regard cable networks in the North Sea as public infrastructure, to be built using public funds. This has consequences for the development and maintenance of and access to those cables. By socialising the costs, what in fact we are saying is that anyone who wishes to build a wind park can link up to the main cable that connects to the onshore power network. This makes it possible to consider at an early stage where you expect future wind parks to be situated to take this into consideration in the layout of the grid.”
As part of the NWO-MVI project, Künneke’s team has developed a structured method to compare the various values embedded in a technology with the values associated with a particular regulatory framework.
“This allows us to predict which conflicts may take place, and possible ways to solve them. This is not based on acceptance by stakeholders right now, but rather we attempt to define acceptability in a broader sense. For example, we consider where problems may arise in 20 or 30 years’ time and try to anticipate these wherever possible by incorporating these values into the design.”
There are other important considerations with relation to sustainable energy, in addition to offshore energy systems. For example, there is the urgent issue of the modifications required to onshore electricity systems if they are to deal with a more sustainable, and therefore often more variable, energy supply. Machiel Mulder of the University of Groningen and his interdisciplinary team have studied the extent to which the design of the electricity market needs to change to facilitate the growth in the renewable energy supply. Research is being carried out as part of this project into the consequences of various design aspects, such as the introduction of dynamic network tariffs and support for this amongst the general public; the influence of subsidy structures for renewable energy on cost effectiveness; the interaction between various forms of government policy such as EU emissions trading, national subsidies and coal taxes; and the flexibility of the general public with reference to electricity consumption.
Supply and demand
“We currently pay a fixed amount each year to connect to the grid,” explains Mulder. “This amount is not affected by how much we actually use. However, the renewable energy supply – for example from wind and sun – is variable. Failure to match demand to these variations means that the network operator will be faced with large differences in supply between peak and off-peak times and will need to invest in extra capacity to cope with the higher peaks in the network. This, however, is expensive.”
One way in which the network operator can reduce costs is to match the tariffs for using the network to supply, to make it more expensive to use the network at times of low supply, and cheaper when supply is higher, for example when solar panels are producing a lot of electricity during sunny periods. However, this raises technical, economic and philosophical issues, says Mulder: “How can we encourage people to use electricity at these cheaper times? After all, you cannot expect people to sit and watch the electricity tariffs all day.” Ethicists have considered to what extent it is fair to make people pay more to use the network when lots of other people also want to use it at the same time. In addition, electrotechnology and economy researchers have examined how dynamic network tariffs can help maintain balance in the network.
“People do not generally think it fair to pay for scarcity, as we see in the discussion surrounding road use charges,” says Mulder. “However, if you can guarantee that the money will be used to improve the network and infrastructure, our research shows that they find it easier to accept.” It should be noted, however, that it is important that consumers are informed in advance of how high the tariff could be, and that they can see when and how often the higher rate will apply.
“In this project, we developed a physical model of the electricity network and an economic model of the electricity market to analyse the effects of tariffs, subsidies and the result of the interaction between different climate policy measures. We are now going to use these models to explore other issues relating to the changing electricity market.”