Terna Palmiano centro nazionale controllo

Systems research inspires technological innovation, for the energy of the future: a conversation with Franco Cotana

Renewables and security, climate change and resilience, the energy and digital transition: all this was covered in our conversation with the Chief Executive Officer of RSE, the company that carries out research on the entire electricity and energy supply chain, with an emphasis on experimental applications. Its activities support the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security (MASE) and the Italian Regulatory Authority for Energy, Networks and the Environment (ARERA).

What is the future of the electricity system, and what challenges lie ahead for us over the coming years? Will renewable sources be able to cover most of the electricity demand? What will be needed to counter, or at least mitigate, the effects of climate change on electricity infrastructure? And what role will technology, innovation, digitalisation and artificial intelligence play in helping to achieve the energy transition’s decarbonisation targets? We discussed these questions with Franco Cotana, the Chief Executive Officer of RSE-Ricerca sul Sistema Energetico (Research on Energy Systems), in a meeting organised by Terna, the company that manages the Italian national transmission grid. The focus was on the challenges of systems research and the future of energy, in Italy and elsewhere, and on secure, resilient grids with the help of new technologies, in the challenging and ever-changing context of facing up to the risks of extreme weather events.

Giuseppina Di Foggia AD Terna Franco Cotana AD RSE

The Chief Executive Officer and General Manager of Terna, Giuseppina Di Foggia, and the CEO of RSE, Franco Cotana, sign a five-year partnership agreement for the development and application of processes and technologies in the field of energy and the environment, in Rome, February 2024 (photo by Terna).

Terna and RSE have worked together for years for the development of the electricity supply chain, rising to the immense challenges of the energy and digital transition. In early 2024, Terna and RSE signed a five-year partnership agreement aimed at the development and application of processes and technologies in the field of energy and the environment, promoting study initiatives and development and innovation activities in that sphere. Specifically, the partnership involves launching joint collaborations in a variety of areas: optimised grid planning and design; methodologies for smart-asset management; monitoring, control and resilience of the electricity system; development of new technologies for grid flexibility; scenarios for the evolution of demand and generation from renewable sources; big-data management and data science; and the use of IoT (Internet of things) technology, cyber security, artificial intelligence and other technology enabling the Italian energy transition. All of these areas fall within the scope of RSE’s activities. In fact the company, which is entirely controlled by the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security through the Energy Service Manager (GSE), carries out research on the entire electricity and energy supply chain with an emphasis on experimental applications, and supports the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security (MASE) and the Italian Regulatory Authority for Energy, Networks and Environment (ARERA). Established in 2005, it currently numbers around 350 workers with 50 laboratories dotted throughout Italy.

Drone per monitoraggio elettrodotto

A drone used to monitor one of the power lines belonging to Terna, the Italian electricity grid operator (photo by Terna)

Mr Cotana, let’s start with Systems Research: what does it mean, and what specific activities are involved? «It refers to all the research and development initiatives aimed at technical and technological innovation in the electricity sector, as part of the pursuit of sustainable development that guarantees security, cost-effectiveness, and environmental compatibility at the same time. Systems Research is supported by the ‘Fund for the financing of research and development activities of general interest for the national electricity system’, set up by the Italian Office for Energy and Environmental Services (CSEA). The topics and research projects eligible for funding are chosen by the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security. The results of these activities benefit the users as well as the stakeholders of the electricity system. For the programme agreement for the three-year period 2022-2024, RSE was granted a share of the funds amounting to 108 million euro. The other recipients, CNR and ENEA, received 13.5 million euro and 74 million euro respectively».

RSE collaborates with a lot of universities and research centres, industrial and institutional partners, including international ones, giving it a very broad perspective on energy issues. What is your role in the energy transition? «RSE works for the benefit of end users and citizens, with its studies and research contributing to making sure the energy transition achieves its goals of climate change mitigation at acceptable costs, while guaranteeing the security of the energy supply and a high-quality service. These goals can be achieved through close ties with the institutions and businesses in the sector: research and experimentation into new energy technologies and new ways of planning and managing the energy system favour the innovation processes of a variety of operators, like equipment manufacturers and the operators of energy networks and systems. RSE’s status as an independent body and the skills it has acquired and continually built upon make it an effective partner for political and administrative policy-makers, offering them its technical support on an ongoing basis».

CNC Palmiano nuova sede Terna 2

Terna's national electricity system control centre in Rome (photo by Terna)

Over the coming years, what will be the main innovation challenges for the acceleration of evolution and decarbonisation in the energy system? «The main challenges concern the improvement of electricity and heat generation systems powered by renewable sources, as well as the management of an electricity system increasingly impacted by the variability of solar and wind power. In this regard, it will be important to develop and demonstrate the functioning of new flexibility resources like electrochemical storage, demand flexibility, the integrated management of heat and electricity vectors, and the production, storage and use of hydrogen. The use of programmable renewable sources should also be encouraged: hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal and, last but not least, new-generation nuclear from 2030, at least partly replacing generation from fossil fuels as resources for adequacy and stability. An increasingly fragmented and decentralised system of energy production also requires new kinds of management, in which the role of the users/producers becomes important for stable, efficient functioning. Therefore, methods for the active participation of the end users must be experimented with, including through forms of geographic and functional aggregation. There are two topics of growing importance across the board, which are becoming the subject of research and innovation themselves. First is materials science, needed to contribute to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of technologies for the production, storage, transport and final use of energy, reducing the risks of procuring the raw materials. Secondly, information and communications technology can guarantee the transmission and intelligent use of large flows of data in an ever-more complex, dynamic and integrated system, including through artificial intelligence techniques».

«Tackling the challenges of climate change requires a collective effort and close collaboration between all players in the energy system. In this context, the partnership between RSE and Terna represents a vital opportunity to create a more secure and sustainable future for energy. Such a complex problem demands an integrated approach, which takes both infrastructural solutions as well as planning and operational solutions into account».

Franco Cotana Chief Executive Officer of RSE-Ricerca sul Sistema Energetico

The energy system is going through a period of profound transformation, in which renewable sources as well as the electrification of consumption and electric mobility play key roles. For this purpose, Italy’s National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC 2.0, which RSE supported with research and analysis) has set a series of targets which the country must reach by the end of the decade. The long-term strategy of the European Commission, on the other hand, is to aim for net zero by 2050. Let’s jump ahead 25 years, and imagine we're at the final evening of the Italian Song Festival 2050 in Sanremo. For the different scenarios, what energy mix will be able to guarantee the continuity of supply in complete security throughout every part of the day, including during the hours of peak demand? «In addition to the national energy system development scenarios at the heart of the PNIEC, RSE has also developed the scenarios of the Long-Term Strategy aimed at climate neutrality by 2050. In that year, we will see a very high level of electrification of consumption, which will be indispensable in maximising the efficiency of the system, with demand for final uses in the order of 450 TWh, which is to say 50% higher than current levels. For the complete decarbonisation of the energy system, it will also be necessary to intervene in so-called “hard-to-abate” sectors which cannot be electrified. For these, it will be necessary to turn to hydrogen as a vector: it is estimated that a further electricity demand of 150-230 TWh will be needed for its production. Both demand for final uses and demand for the production of hydrogen must be met by renewable sources. As previously mentioned, from 2030, new-generation nuclear technologies will also be part of satisfying demand, with an important role to play in the energy transition towards an economy with low greenhouse-gas emissions. In this regard, RSE supports Italy’s National Platform for Sustainable Nuclear Power, set up within MASE by Minister Pichetto Fratin. The platform operates as part of the strategy for the decarbonisation of energy and production systems, developing guidelines and a roadmap, with horizons in 2030 and 2050. The goal is to facilitate the development of nuclear technologies with a low environmental impact and high standards of security and sustainability, in order to allow the Ministry to set a firm timeline for the potential resumption of nuclear energy use in Italy. This will rely on new sustainable technologies which are under development, particularly in the sector of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Micro Modular Reactors (MMRs) and Advanced Modular Reactors (fourth-generation AMRs), as well as nuclear fusion in the long term».

Terna reti trasmissione

A stretch of the Italian national electricity grid in Valle d'Aosta (photo by Terna)

In recent years, one of the most topical - and worrying - issues is the question of climate change, which is putting electrical infrastructure under considerable strain, among its other effects. Located between the arid regions of Northern Africa and high-rainfall areas of Central Europe, Italy is exposed to meteorological instability that also affects the transmission grid. A number of extreme events of growing frequency and intensity primarily cause infrastructural breakdown and power cuts: from melting snow to extreme precipitation, and from high-intensity winds to periods of prolonged drought. In addition to these individual phenomena are those caused when they come together, creating additional situations potentially threatening the grid. Some examples? Landslides and mudslides, heat waves and soil aridification, forest fires, and the build-up of surface contamination on insulators. In recent years, RSE, Terna and ARERA have presented a new methodology for the Resilience Plan for the national electricity transmission grid, with the objective of increasing the safety, reliability and sustainability of the country's strategic energy infrastructures, which are frequently exposed to increasingly intense and widespread extreme weather events.

What are the main steps that currently need to be taken to counter and/or mitigate the effects of climate change on electrical infrastructure? «The resilience methodology developed by Terna and RSE, approved by ARERA and integrated into the Grid Code (Ed: annex A 76), has made it possible to prepare annual plans for improving the resilience of the national transmission grid, with results that can already be felt. Although this methodology is a crucial step forward, the challenge posed to electrical infrastructure by climate change is unprecedented, with the risk of power cuts and interruptions becoming increasingly frequent and severe. The urgency of including resilience targets in the energy transition agenda is clear, and the mitigation solutions set out in the PNIEC must be implemented as a matter of the utmost priority. Indeed, the climate change we are currently experiencing highlights the limits of traditional approaches to the security of electricity systems, which require a profound redefinition to improve resilience and limit outages. Tackling the challenges of climate change requires a collective effort and close collaboration between all players in the energy system. In this context, the partnership between RSE and Terna represents a vital opportunity to create a more secure and sustainable future for energy. Such a complex problem demands an integrated approach, which takes both infrastructural solutions as well as planning and operational solutions into account».

What specifically is needed? «Threats to the system, ranging from hydro-geological risks to meteorological ones, must be studied; advanced models must be developed to assess vulnerabilities and predict risks; innovative technologies and solutions must be researched and developed for risk management in the context of climate change; and advanced methodologies must be developed for planning, programming, operating and asset management to support the resilience of the electricity system. I am convinced that the partnership between Terna and RSE sets an excellent example for Italy, and represents a crucial opportunity to build a resilient, secure and sustainable future for energy».

Read more about Terna's initiatives to improve the resilience of the electricity system

When it comes to Open Innovation, RSE has embarked on a process of promoting a culture of collaboration and exchange, in order to improve the quality of research activities and offer new solutions for the Italian energy system. What specific initiatives and projects are you working on? «It is essential to be competitive and innovative in an industry as dynamic as the energy sector. Because the context that we work in never stops evolving, we have to be able to integrate both internal and external ideas and skills and, sometimes, to recognise when to jettison traditional practices and embrace new approaches. At RSE, we’ve launched a variety of initiatives to promote a process of creating, gathering and spreading innovative ideas, with the intention of encouraging a free and creative approach that thinks outside the box. As part of this approach, we’ve set up a cycle of yearly meetings in order to facilitate our researchers and foster their ideas. The setting promotes collaboration and sharing, enabling a lively exchange of reflections and insights, which can then be thoroughly investigated thanks to the work of the Knowledge Communities: interdepartmental groups of researchers who come together to focus on specific topics representing challenges for the energy system. Another useful initiative is "Collaborating with the KCs", which consists of short weekly meetings giving participants the chance to come together and develop synergies. As part of this cycle of meetings, the project heads provide issues for consideration related to the research conducted by the existing programmes, which can be investigated by the Knowledge Communities free from the urgency and deadlines typical of the daily work routine. Our goal is to foster an innovation ecosystem, as a process integrated into our work methods and approach to new activities. That’s why we promote constant consultation and dialogue with the world of research, universities, businesses and start-ups, including by organising dedicated opportunities for debate».

Franco Cotana AD RSE

Engineer Franco Cotana, Chief Executive Officer of RSE-Ricerca sul Sistema Energetico (photo by RSE)

Terna-RSE projects. Terna and RSE are working on a variety of activities, foremost among which are: Flow, an electrical mobility initiative that identifies technological solutions to enable V2G (vehicle-to-grid) services; TwinEU, a project for the digital twinning of the European electricity grid, also involving other Italian and international partners; and BeFlexible, dedicated to grid flexibility and collaboration with distributors.