Alternative Energy

How simulation is helping to tackle the climate crisis

4th May 2022
Paige West

Clean, green energy is the bedrock of any movement towards the goal of net-zero, but it is only through detailed and robust simulations of renewable energy generation that its use can be expanded, Chris Hayhurst, MathWorks, explains.

As the climate crisis looms, renewable energy continues to be top of the agenda. Following COP26, governments are continuing to increase investments in renewable power generation. In his Spring Statement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that VAT on energy-saving household measures such as solar panels, insulation, and heat pumps will be cut to zero for the next five years. As the race to net-zero continues, there’s an increased expectation for businesses and individuals to re-think their approach to energy consumption, especially as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls ‘now or never’ on the runaway impact of climate change.

With these new expectations comes the need to expand renewable power generation, and thus the need for reliable simulations that can model how renewables can contribute to our power needs. Renewables are by nature variable. When the sun doesn’t shine, your solar panel won’t work, and there needs to be detailed simulations of this dynamic process. Without models to simulate how this variable production can be integrated within larger power grids and predictions of demand, it won’t be feasible to accurately plan the capacity of these energy sources. With these plans goes the chance to ever hit COP 26’s targets.

Challenges faced by renewable energy engineers today

A major issue for renewable energy engineers today is ensuring energy systems function across a range of levels and timescales. Engineers must not only work out the minutiae of matching grid frequencies, with timescales in milliseconds, but also meet day, month, and year-long production cycles. Power plant models which accurately simulate these dynamics can help engineers to both design the generation equipment within the plant itself, and price the energy that this equipment will generate. In turn, energy providers will be able to predict the profit they will make on the energy they supply and justify investment in new renewable generation. Without an accurate pegging of firms’ profit margins, we may see overall investment in the technology drop as market incentives fail to accurately establish themselves.

Another challenge is energy storage, which has been put front and centre by recent extreme weather events linked to climate change. From dealing with large-scale flooding in Australian and east coast American metropoles to thousands left without power in north-east England after the advent of Storm Arwen, many are looking at how we can act now to avoid power outages in the future. By using holistic simulations that allow engineers to integrate storage systems into national networks, we will be able to limit some of the damage caused by outages. Being able to put 100MW hours into the grid at a moment’s notice from a power storage system will be crucial to overcoming this growing challenge.  

One of the primary ways to tackle these challenges is by investing in multi-domain simulation capabilities. By simulating a wind farm grid connection all the way down to the physical modelling of how wind turbines turn and generate electricity, it is possible to connect the whole renewable energy flow in a single, multi-faceted simulation. This helps to understand the dynamism of possible real-world scenarios and predict how the generation systems will cope – all enabled by a robust simulation environment.

Engineers can then plan ahead and be prepared for all situations, even those that may challenge a system’s stability – like an outage. As an example, utility provider Hydro-Québec faced the challenge of integrating wind farms into the grid. By using simulation, they were able to model both individual turbines and entire wind farms, generate code from the models, and run the entire simulation through their multiprocessor environment. With this multi-domain approach, Hydro-Québec could conduct large-scale power systems studies, including the interaction between series compensation and wind farms, in a way that proved far less efficient with traditional tools, in real time.

The future of renewable energy

The climate crisis is now undeniable and there is a real need to move towards a more sustainable future. By creating more robust, dynamic, and cost-effective testing environments, multi-domain simulation is making it easier than ever to plan the capabilities, operation, and integration of renewable power plants into the existing energy infrastructure of countries across the globe.

To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C – as called for in the Paris Agreement – emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Tackling the climate crisis will depend not only on commitment to renewable energy, but also the tools to implement that will. Without robust and dynamic simulation, these goals are set to remain as they are – a hope – and that is something we can ill afford to rely on.

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