The energy transition needs good 'partnerwork' to succeed: Essay Competition 2018

Aug 27, 2018

When I started my professional career about 10 months ago at aggregator and virtual power plant operator Next Kraftwerke, little I knew about what was waiting for me. A few months into the job, I got the responsibility for a new project announcing the advent of energy storage for grid services at the distribution grid level in Belgium. The perfect baptism of fire at the start of my professional career.

You have probably heard of Tesla’s battery park in Australia that is helping to keep the grid frequency Down Under on a stable level. When there is an excess of energy in the grid, the batteries charge up, when there is too little, they release the energy again. In Europe, we call this grid service Frequency Containment Reserve (that’s about it for complicated terms in this essay, don’t worry).

That Tesla battery farm is connected to the high voltage transmission grid and primarily provides grid services, although about 30% of the capacity is used for trading on the electricity markets in conjunction with a nearby wind farm. The number of constraints? All in all limited. The number of parties involved? Also limited.

Imagine now that you bring these batteries to the distribution level and behind the meter. This move adds local distribution grid congestion issues, on-site energy consumption, and on-site energy production of PV or wind, to the list of boundary conditions. The number of stakeholders equally increases. Such a battery endeavour is pretty new in my part of Europe, it’s pretty innovative, and therefore, it’s pretty risky. It is exactly what I got myself into with my first project at Next Kraftwerke.

As representative of the company that was about to operate the battery on the Frequency Containment Reserve markets of Belgian transmission grid operator Elia, I had to make sure all cogwheels of Next Kraftwerke were adjusted to one another: the technical guys who prepare our hardware to talk in real-time with the battery, the virtual power plant engineers who have to solve the puzzle of the optimal combination with other assets in our portfolio, the energy traders who need to strategically bid in the tenders for balancing power, and the lawyer who I just couldn’t convince we were not going to set the battery on fire.

That requires solid teamwork. But, as an InnoEnergy alumnus with a track record of project work, I was prepared for that. It is not a magic formula, in the end: open communication, clear task distribution, and a meticulous timeline bring you more than halfway there.

Yet, only when stepping out of the team perspective at Next Kraftwerke and looking at the total picture including the battery manufacturer, investors, site owner, energy supplier, distribution grid and transmission grid operators, it became apparent to me: executing this project successfully was a challenge on a different level.

Working together well within does not come close to collaborating over the boundaries of a company. Respective project managers are defending the best outcome for their business, are thinking about the workload for their teams, are worried about their legal liabilities, and are minimising their financial risks.

Keeping the balance right between all project stakeholders looked like dancing ballet at first sight, ballet on ice. But we didn’t go down. During our figurative rounds on the ice rink, I figured some things out about good partnerwork:

  • Lesson 1: Cooperation can but succeed if all stakeholders are convinced that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there. Or to put it in other words: everybody agrees that none of the partners is indispensable.
  • Lesson 2: Be fair or be square: responsibility, risk, and profits go hand in hand. Trying to push all the work and risk to the other partners while claiming the largest share of the profits will probably make the collaboration slip, if not fall straight on its face.

In my case these rules worked: since the beginning of July, the 2 MW big lithium-ion beast on the picture above is helping to keep the Belgian grid stable. After a visit of the Minister of Energy and a decent amount of press coverage, energy storage is now brought under the attention of investors in Belgium (who are usually a fair bit more conservative than their Dutch and German neighbours) and I am very proud that I was part of this achievement.

What it all comes down to is the following. To speed up the clean energy transition, we need to double down on collaboration between companies (and citizen movements, for that matter). As an old African proverb says: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." That does not only apply to individuals, but also to companies. A lot of businesses have great internal teamwork, but more than ever successful partnerwork will make the difference.


By  Elias De Keyser

Published on 27 August 2018

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