Integrating alternatives: powering the future

Renewable energy is all well and good, but what about when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing?
14 June 2022

Interview with 

Simon Harrison, Mott Macdonald


The world needs ways to make metaphorical hay - electricity - when the sun is shining, store it, and then redistribute it efficiently when we need it. We have multiple challenges standing in our way for this happen; ranging from economic systems and government policies, to smarter technologies and perhaps even new ways of working or organising our lives. Simon Harrison is an electrical engineer and head of strategy for the engineering company Mott Macdonald...

Julia - Simon, this is not just a case of putting up more wind turbines or solar panels, is it?

Simon - No I'm afraid it isn't. Those are component parts of an energy system that we need to decarbonise globally by 2050. That's not very long away, it's only 330 months I calculated. We have to do that affordably, we have to do that in a way that is resilient and reliable, and that's a massive challenge. So that's not about picking a few technologies and deploying them. It needs an approach that considers the energy system as a whole, at a strategic level. We have to worry about economics, policy, technology, networks, digital markets, supply chains, regulation, how efficiently we use energy and how we behave. At the same time, we have to think about that at all scales; national, regional, city, community - they all have different parts of play. And we have to make all of that fit together in the best way that produces an affordable answer for you and me.

Julia - It sounds like a lot of steps to consider. So what is the order in which we need to put these things in place?

Simon - The issues that drive all this I think are pace and scale. There's a lot of discovery involved because we don't yet know all of the best answers even though we probably know most of the technologies and we need to test and deploy multiple approaches at scale, we can't assume that we make a policy based on something working. There may be all sorts of issues as to how much things end up costing, whether there are supply chains that can produce things at scale, and how that's working out around the world. We need to learn fast, change our approach, and then scale again. There are some clear immediate needs. We need a policy environment, a digital backbone on what I would expect to be a much more digitalised system, and support for innovation, both at big scales, things like better nuclear or offshore wind, and innovation at perhaps much more local scale about how energy needs to be better integrated locally.

Julia - And we're currently in this cost of living crisis. So all of these interventions that are needed in the future, they sound great, but are probably very costly. Is this going to be cost effective down the line?

Simon - We have to decarbonise by 2050. If we don't do that in a thoughtful, planned way that thinks about the system as a whole, it will end up costing a lot more money. So this will cost money, but this is about spending as little money as we have to to achieve the end goal. If we don't take a system's view, we'll make far more mistakes, we'll have to rectify things later or alternatively, we might well end up missing the target. If we find out how to scale new approaches, costs tend to come down dramatically and the evidence from say solar and wind is very much the case. Both of those are much, much cheaper than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

Julia - So with these interventions in place would the hope be that prices of electricity will be more stable in the long run because we have these storage systems?

Simon - An energy system based on a much broader mix of sources, including much more renewable energy and appropriate and well integrated storage and smart end use using energy demand as something that can be varied as the wind blows and the sun's out, all offers opportunity to a much more price stable energy system in the long term. Although none of these things will have a big impact on prices in the short term, unfortunately.


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