Pandemic disrupting global energy markets and systems

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic is set to transform economies globally in the medium and long term as its adverse consequences spread to more domains. Beyond the oil market, which was immediately negatively affected by this worldwide health crisis, the entire electrotechnology domain is likely to be comprehensively reshaped, beginning with electrical energy production, distribution and use. IEC work is set to have a major impact on the way the entire sector evolves.

Young girl wearing protective mask

Positive environmental impact unlikely to last

The significant drop in environmental nuisances such as noise and pollution from the initial reduction of industrial activities and restrictions on transport was seen by many as the most obvious benefit of the pandemic, which may not last very long. However, it may accelerate "some structural changes – such as the decline of coal in Europe," according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA expects global CO2 emissions to drop by between 2.6 and 3.6 gigatonnes (2.6 – 3.6 billion tonnes) in 2020, however, it stresses that in "past economic downturns, emissions recovered rapidly as economies regained their footing."

Shift to more renewables and better energy efficiency needed

A trend observed in recent years has been the growing share of renewable energy (RE) sources, mainly hydropower, wind and solar in global electricity generation, which provided nearly 28 per cent of the total in the first quarter of 2020. REs are central to the transition to a less carbon-intensive, more sustainable energy system. In spite of the global economic downturn, electricity generation from RE sources has shown resilience, with lower demand being met mainly by switching off power plants using fossil fuels.

Manufacturers of RE equipment must ensure that their products and services are reliable, safe and efficient. IECRE, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Renewable Energy Applications, offers third-party testing and certification of wind, solar photovoltaic (PV) and marine energy equipment and services to consensus-based IEC International Standards. This reduces risks, streamlines costs and enhances market access.

IECRE uses the standards developed by IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems, which covers solar energy transformed into electrical energy using PV cells and all associated components and systems, standards by IEC TC 88: Wind energy generation systems, i.e. wind turbine installations and those developed by IEC TC 114: Marine energy – Wave, tidal and other water current converters, created in 2007.

IEC work in power generation and storage from RE sources

The following IEC technical committees (TCs) develop international standards for power generation systems that are – at least partly – linked to power generation from RE sources:

  • TC 4: Hydraulic turbines, established in 1913 to "prepare international standards and reports for hydraulic rotating machinery and associated equipment allied with hydro-power development." This includes pumped-storage hydropower installations.
  • TC 5: Steam turbines, created in 1913. Steam turbines are used for electricity generation from geothermal sources, solar thermal electric plants and the following: fossil fuel-powered, nuclear power plants, and combined heat and power (CHP) plants.
  • TC 117: Solar thermal electric plants, for the conversion of solar thermal energy into electrical energy.

Storing electricity is important for energy efficiency projects by optimizing output from intermittent sources. In addition to pumped-storage hydropower, which is expected to make up 87 per cent in 2023, secondary (rechargeable) batteries are the main source of electrical energy storage (EES). Standards for these are developed by:

  • TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, for all types of batteries used in EES including stationary (lead-acid, lithium-ion and NiCad/NiMH) batteries and flow batteries.
  • TC 120: Electrical energy storage (EES) Systems, which develops International Standards in the field of grid integrated EES Systems, focusing on system aspects rather than energy storage devices.

Challenges posed by RE power generation

The growing share of REs in electricity generation presents a number of challenges; solutions exist for some of these, for others these need to be further developed or created.

The main issue with wind and solar RE power generation systems is that, owing to their intermittent nature, they may not meet demand when it's required at very short notice, i.e. when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine.

Electricity produced from REs – unlike that from hydropower, nuclear or fossil fuel-powered plants that can be switched on an off rapidly – is produced and available instantly and must be stored or used differently. Solutions, such as pump-storage hydropower or secondary batteries already exist, others like using offshore wind power to produce "clean" hydrogen are being developed. One solution is the installation of "wind farms" offshore, which doesn't present major technical issues given the experience gained over decades in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Global offshore wind power generation has grown 24 per cent a year since 2013 and is expected to grow fivefold until 2030.

Other major factor likely to boost RE power generation

Another big factor likely to provide a major shift to power generation from RE sources is growing global concern about climate change. On 7 October the IMF issued the following warning: "Unaddressed, climate change will entail a potentially catastrophic human and economic toll, but it’s not too late to change course."

Recent unprecedented natural disasters widely attributed to changing climate conditions reinforce this warning. In 2019-2020 alone they ranged from the worst-ever fire season in Australia and California, to a very serious 2020 Atlantic hurricane season in the US, monsoon rainfall records in Asia resulting in severe flooding affecting millions of people across South and East Asia, "more widespread than usual rainfall" in Central and East Africa, with what were reported to be "the worst floods for 40 years".

All these events, most natural, are widely attributed to higher levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, any reduction in GHG emissions, in particular switching from fossil fuels to REs for power generation, transport and buildings, when possible, would be welcome and help reduce the problem.