Alternative, more efficient ways of connecting renewable energy schemes must be fast-tracked to avoid project delays, soaring costs and generation shortages.
In light of looming copper shortages, senior industry figures have told Utility Week that more needs to be done to tackle electricity losses.
Maxine Frerk, former senior partner at Ofgem, believes that incentives to reduce losses should be brought in by Ofgem to spark change.
Speaking to Utility Week, Frerk said: “Electrical losses are a really important issue that Ofgem did not give enough attention to in ED2.
“I estimated last year that losses (across transmission and distribution) were costing domestic customers £100 per annum on their bills. And they matter for net zero because the higher losses are the more system capacity we need to build to meet end demand.”
She added: “Ofgem seems to have accepted an increase in losses as inevitable as loads on the network increase. But to me that’s a reason to pay more attention to them not less. There are a range of actions the companies can take from using new low loss equipment to operational actions to balance loads across their networks – but without a clear signal from Ofgem that these are important they won’t be a priority for companies.
“Ofgem has removed the one financial incentive that did apply to losses and is relying instead on reputational regulation and existing high level licence requirements. It is not clear that is enough.”
Dominic Quennell, the chief executive of Enertechnos, which has developed a new cable design also believes that there needs to be a greater focus on efficiency.
He warned that predicted copper shortages in the near future would become a potential blocker to connecting schemes to the grid unless more efficient solutions are deployed.
“There is going to be a pinch point within the next decade or so where demand for copper outstrips supply”, Quennell told Utility Week. “In just a few years’ time we will need to be producing more copper than we ever have before to connect the number of renewable energy projects around the world to the grid. So we really need to be thinking now about how to do things more efficiently.”
A fast-approaching global shortage of copper was identified in S&P Global’s recent report The Future of Copper.
In particular, S&P Global’s report warns that demand will outstrip supply by 2035, threatening to derail international efforts to decarbonise the world’s energy systems.
Goldman Sachs has also recently predicted the world to run out of visible copper inventories by the third quarter of this year due to a surge in demand from China.
And with demand at an all-time high, copper prices are also predicted to hit record highs this year, with Trafigura, the Singapore-based trading house, estimating that copper prices would surpass the $10,845 a tonne peak achieved in March 2022 and could even hit $12,000 a tonne during 2023.
The S&P Global report projects global refined copper demand to almost double from just over 25 million tons in 2021 to nearly 49 million tons in 2035, with energy transition technologies accounting for about half of the growth in demand.
The report adds: “The world has never produced anywhere close to this much copper in such a short time frame. […] Substitution and recycling will not be enough to meet the demands of electric vehicles (EVs), power infrastructure, and renewable generation. Unless massive new supply comes online in a timely way, the goal of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 will be short-circuited and remain out of reach.”
The report warns that the shortfall could reach as high as 9.9 million tons in 2035, based on a continuation of current trends in capacity utilisation of mines and recycling of recovered copper. This would mean a 20% shortfall from the supply level required for the net-zero emissions by 2050 target.
It adds: “The chronic gap between worldwide copper supply and demand projected to begin in the middle of this decade will have serious consequences across the global economy and will affect the timing of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050.”
The S&P Global report concludes that solving the problem cannot simply be done by building new mines as it takes around 16 years to get a new copper mine off the ground.
Quennell believes that Enertechnos’ technology holds the answer to the problem. Enertechnos’ Capacitive Transfer System (CTS) introduces a “linear capacitor” through the cable length, which its backers claim leads to lower losses and allows delivery of more power than equivalent legacy cable systems (see diagram below).
Originally developed for electricity distribution networks, Enertechnos has refined CTS to be applicable in a wider area of applications, in offshore grids, wireless EV charging, aviation and other sectors.
“The original idea when we set this up was to make better cables because we wanted to reduce losses in transmission and distribution,” Quennell said. “On average 10% of electricity generated is lost from the point of generation to the point of consumption.”
He added: “The CTS looks like a cable, feels like cable and can be integrated into grids as and when cable needs replacing or new cable needs using. But by introducing capacitors within the cable we thought we could balance out the losses and so it has proved.”
Quennell explains that because there are fewer losses, you can use the CTS over a longer stretch without losing voltage.
“The CTS provides more power delivered for volume of conductor, which means if you use CTS on long line of cable, say from an offshore windfarm, you can use a smaller cable than you would otherwise need to,” Quennell added. “The current reflex among engineers, if they have issues with losses, is to throw more copper at it and increase the size of cable.
“That’s fine, but copper is expensive and getting more expensive and from a decarbonisation of the grid point of view it’s also extremely undesirable because for every tonne of copper you produce it releases six tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere during manufacture.
“So you can dramatically reduce the copper needed for connections if you use a cable like ours.”