The widespread disruption caused by this pandemic has highlighted one very important dependency of our modern society — electricity.
As millions of people across the globe are staying home to keep safe, many activities that earlier required human interaction are now being done remotely. Reliable electricity supply is critical to power the digital devices needed to perform these duties. That being said, one of the most vital uses right now is in our hospitals as they have to power ventilators and operating equipment every minute of every day. In such an unsettling and rapidly evolving situation, electricity is essential in ensuring that medical care staff have all the necessary resources needed to treat their patients. And for all of us at home, who rely on digital media to get constant updates about important developments regarding the pandemic, we must not forget how indispensable electricity is.
Ensuring the security of the electricity sector will require collective action from governments worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how the sector must evolve in the coming years and how we must learn to adapt to it. One of the best ways to ramp up electricity security is to use wind and solar energy to supply demand. Many countries have taken drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus by temporarily shutting down many businesses and factories which, in turn, have led to a 15% decline in global electricity demand. This could mean that for economies like Spain and California, that have the highest shares of wind and solar electricity generation worldwide, a drop in demand could mean an increase in their share of renewables. This is an important moment in our understanding of cleaner electricity systems.
Policymakers now have to address operational challenges to ensure this security. One thing we must understand is that although demand has weakened, power generation capacity is still abundant. System operators still have to balance supply and demand in real-time. This means that when solar or wind energy is satisfying the majority of the demand, systems must be flexible to ramp up other sources of generation quickly when the pattern of supply shifts, such as when the sun sets. This need for flexibility is what policymakers must assess under extreme conditions.
At the moment, more electricity systems rely on natural gas power plants which can quickly ramp up or down at short notice. However, they tend to lose money if they are only used from time to time to help the system adjust to shifts in demand. In the current scenario, the pressure is increasing since the plants have had to clamp down on generation. This is where solar and wind can provide some flexibility. Wind power can be gradually ramped down when demand drops and some solar can be shut off when there is more than needed. This will help decrease costs and increase energy security.
Long term tasks will include investing in tougher electricity networks that are resilient towards harsh conditions. Currently, these networks require skilled personnel for maintenance and repair work and organisations have had to ensure that their staff remain safe since they have been exempted from the lockdown. The pandemic has brought all these shortcomings in the sector to light but it has also revealed some key insights into the future and highlighted what policy measures are needed to ensure that the sector is reliable while also transforming with the rise of clean energy technologies. It is now up to us to respond accordingly.