Energy transition: from the Covid lockdown a dress rehearsal for 2025

The pandemic has served as a stress test to push the electricity system towards the goals laid down in the integrated National Energy and Climate Plan: a leap forward in the share of renewables, a drop in thermoelectric power and a drop in system reserves. Terna’s experience at a Stanford University webinar.

It's been a rough few months on lockdown. In Italy, lockdown in its most restrictive “stay home” form started on 9 March 2020 and ended on 3 May, when Phase 2 started. The economic effects have been enormous and are still very much felt. However, as well as the numerous effects of COVID on the lives of millions of Italians, the pandemic has also reduced CO2 emissions and allowed the oceans, rivers and atmosphere to breathe. The lockdown led to a drop in electricity demand and a subsequent increase in the share of RESs (renewable energy sources) on total consumption. In effect, it was a “dress rehearsal” for what is to come in 2025 and then in 2030, if the integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) is completed as anticipated. This will increase the share generated via solar, wind and water resources to 55% of Italy’s electricity consumption, compared to 35% in the 2018 annual figure. But above all, the pandemic will mark a definitive shutdown in production of coal-fired plants. About 7.2 Gigawatts of power will cease operation.

These huge changes, and a host of other challenges to be faced besides, were the focus of the webinar organised by Stanford University— a centre of research excellence in the United States—and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, under the title "Global Challenges of Electric Grid Operations during COVID-19". Terna was the only European TSO (“Transmission System Operator”) to have been invited as a speaker. Others included the American operator ISO (New England) and the Indian operator Prosoco.

Walking around Milan in the Covid times (Mick De Paola/Unsplash.com)

What happened and how lockdown was handled. From emergency management to restarting, what experience have we gained? First of all, we had to ensure business continuity in safety where—as in the control centres—it was impossible to work from home. Italy was also forerunner in the operation of the transmission grid and, in his explanation of the Italian experience at Stanford, Giacomo Donnini, Terna's Head of Development and Special Projects started with the measures taken in order to allow the system’s core to function normally. For each of the core areas—the Italian National Control Centre and the 3 regional control centres—a reserve or “backup” centre has been activated where necessary. With each shift change, personnel rotated from the operations centre to the reserve centre (or vice versa) to allow the work centres to be sanitised in the meantime. Plexiglass screens have also been installed between the desks. As a last resort, if 3 regular shifts were infected and placed on lockdown, the control centre team would have been quarantined in special dormitories for 15 days. In such case, teams located in different, non-infected areas would have entered into service. In order to do all this, all operator training activities and shift changes were decided by teleconference, with the operational teams strictly separated from each other.

A leap forward for renewables. “During lockdown”, Donnini explained to attendees of the Stanford event, “the weekly demand for electricity recorded a sharp decrease, with a peak of 24% year on year in the week between 6 and 12 April 2020. As a result, the impact of renewables has increased up to 15 percentage points compared to 2019”. A real shock to face in such a short period of time as that between 3 March and the partial reopening on 4 May 2020. Abnormal peaks in the coverage of electricity demand via RESs had been recorded in the past, but what led Terna to face critical operating situations this time was the higher frequency and duration of peak demand. A phenomenon which, Donnini mentioned at Stanford, “will be even more pronounced in 2030”.

April that recorded the most significant differences in demand (-17% year on year) compared to March and May (-10%). In particular, on 5 April, with low electricity demand and high production from renewables, the reserve margin, which had already collapsed from 25% in 2014 to 6% in 2019, ended up below zero in areas like the South and Sicily. “In these conditions”, said Donnini, “the scarce availability of sources required for dispatching can put management of the electrical system to the test for the TSO”.

During the Covid-19 emergency, the Italian electricity system experienced a leap forward to 2025 if we consider the drop in the share of thermoelectric generation, which fell 4 points on the total national demand”, he added. He also recalled that thermoelectric capacity increased from 77 to 56 Gigawatts between 2012 and 2020, with a parallel increase in electricity from renewable sources, whose weight on demand is expected to increase by 125% between 2019 and 2030. Impressive numbers and estimates provided a measure of the transformation currently under way and which other countries such as Australia are experiencing much as we are in terms of intensity and breadth.

(Mariana Proença/Unsplash.com)

What's to come. The increasing prevalence of renewables and continuous production shutdown of conventional thermal power plants pose considerable challenges for TSOs. The COVID emergency has only served to further stress operational and scenario issues already widely identified by operators. However, Donnini concluded that an increase in risk is not to be expected. Nonetheless, the association of European grid operators ENTSO-E will continue to monitor the situation.

In terms of the outlook for the second half of 2020 for Italy, an increase in plant closures for maintenance is expected, as many projects have been postponed to the second half of the year to avoid exposing personnel to epidemic risks during the lockdown period. For example, France has rescheduled closures for 14 GW in nuclear power plants over the course of the summer, which could decrease energy exports to Italy, but without significantly altering the adequacy of electricity supplies on the grid. However, coordination across the various European TSOs is still in place for the winter in order to ensure the security of systems which are now closely interlinked. Looking ahead, Terna maintains its key guidelines for energy transformation based around four pillars: transmission grid development, introduction of new long-term price signals (the PPA contracts for renewables), the development of new market services and digitisation of the Italian transmission grid.