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US-European partnerships are advancing global decarbonization initiatives

Wind turbines on Leitrim's Corrie Mountain

Decarbonizing the globe is an imperative to help planet Earth continue to thrive. The world has almost doubled its energy consumption since 1980 — much of that met by fossil fuel-based energy — putting interest in renewable energy sources at an all-time high today. Hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, wave & tidal energy — these key technologies and others offer hope to combat climate change and American companies wishing to adopt the most effective versions of these technologies can look to Europe as a laboratory for how to transition to renewable forms of energy.

U.S. companies and organization are finding a receptive audience in Europe for sharing knowledge and partnering on energy projects, boosted by the fact that many of the nations that are the most advanced in their reliance on renewables are located in the region. 

A typical example of such an alliance is the new research hub in Dublin, Ireland, established by the California-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which will spearhead an array of smart-grid research projects in tandem with Irish researchers and utilities. Meanwhile, Europe’s DERlab (Distributed Energy Resources Lab) in Kassel, Germany serves as a global research and testing center to perform knowledge transfer for the latest smart grid and distributed energy resource solutions.

Almost half the EU’s 28 member states have already hit or exceeded the region’s renewable energy target of 20% by 2020, thus the EU upped the goal to 32% by 2030. This demonstrates the impact of green-minded politicians, subsidy-free projects and corporate investments — some made by American companies. For example, U.S. financial institutions intend to double their planned investments in renewable energy, mobilizing a cumulative $1 trillion in private capital by 2030. Europe has abundant opportunities for green investments considering that 95% of all new power installations in 2018 were for renewables.

U.S. firms looking for a platform on which to study the use of renewables are eyeing Scotland, which receives 74% of its electric energy from renewable sources. Scotland generated enough wind energy to power all its homes twice in the first half of 2019, with its overall broad use of several renewable technologies helping to make up about a quarter of the UK’s total renewable generation. Meanwhile, Germany managed to produce 85% of its electricity from renewables on one occasion back in 2017 — today, it has a strong reliance on renewable energy.

Scandinavian countries are notable for their environmental commitment, with Denmark getting 74% of its energy from renewable sources. That nation leads the way in the use of wind energy, which provides 41% of the nation’s overall electricity. In second place in Europe is Ireland, who’s rapidly growing wind farm sector meets 28% of overall demand, according to the WindEurope association.   

Some American firms are leveraging the positive environmental mindset and wealth of research, funding and partnering opportunities in Europe to achieve significant goals when it comes to the use of renewables. Amazon just announced it will get all its energy from renewable sources at its Irish operations by 2022, doing so by developing an additional wind farm there.

Partnering on research

Tapping into Europe’s array of resources is increasingly attractive to U.S. companies and organizations. For example, the Energy Institute at University College Dublin (UCD) collaborates with industry on research and seeking funding opportunities, including non-Irish operations located in the country. According to Claire Cullen, manager of UCD Energy Institute,

“We’re looking at engaging industry and academia alike to formulate strategic roadmaps in relation to how we can work together to solve the technical challenges that are arising as we transition to a net-zero carbon society.”

One of the many initiatives underway at UCD Energy Institute that may benefit U.S. companies is an Integrated Energy Lab that serves as “a testing platform for new, clean technologies and new innovations,” she reports.

“The Integrated Energy Lab, developed in cooperation with EPRI and linked with European DERLab, is a state-of-the-art facility where we de-risk these creations within a living lab environment to identify any shortcomings so they can be tweaked before being moved into real-world deployment.”

The Energy Institute is working with a variety of American companies that include Smart Wires, based in Union City, California. Smart Wires’ technology allows electricity companies to quickly route power around the existing grid, thus reducing the need for new wires.  Having received support from the Irish government, Smart Wires opened a European headquarters in 2018 in Dublin, where engineers are working to reinvent the power grid. In addition, the company is now experiencing its fastest growth globally in the European market.

Wind power partnerships to the benefit of all

Wind energy production — onshore and offshore — has been on a roll in Europe, currently providing 14% of the EU’s power. Indeed, the largest operational offshore wind farm in the world is located in the UK and nearby nations are also moving quickly to leverage wind energy. Getting particular notice from firms like Siemens and General Electric, as well as the U.S. government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is an ambitious project called DS3 that is focusing funding and multi-disciplinary research into reinventing the electric grid in Ireland and Northern Ireland so that it runs on renewables, largely wind power.

According to Jon O’Sullivan, manager of innovation at EirGrid, Ireland’s electric utility, the DS3 project has received this outside attention because it’s being viewed “as a blueprint for what has to happen to an electricity system anywhere in the world if you want to decarbonize at scale.” Starting in 2000 with virtually no wind-produced energy, the island quickly ramped up, with a current goal of 40% of electricity coming from wind by 2020, with expectations of getting close or meeting this objective.

The DS3 project has been attracting such broad notice because the utilities have applied breakthrough engineering to maximize to extraordinary levels the amount of usable power extracted from a renewable resource with extreme natural fluctuations. Up to 65% of variable energy can now be handled on the grid at any time. 

Said O’Sullivan, “There is simply no system in the world with 65% of the whole system coming from wind today. We’ve had to reinvent the whole engineering of the power system.”

Using the DS3 project and other activities in the EU as a real-life laboratory on how to successfully apply renewables to meeting the power needs of a modern nation is giving U.S. companies a path toward cutting global warming at home. As O’Sullivan notes, power systems should ignore geography, borders and politics, acting in unison to achieve higher-level goals that help the human race.