Opinion | 10 November 2021
Dr Carla De Laurentis, Lecturer contributing to the design and delivery of the 'Circular Economy Innovation Communities' programme and to the Ethical and Sustainable Business Practices module of the BA (Hons) Business and Management.
Seizing the opportunities of cheaper renewables will play a major role in the forthcoming COP26 discussion. Unquestionably, as many countries move towards carbon neutrality goals, reaching these goals will require increased efforts in renewable energy development and deployment. Yet, accommodating high renewable energy penetration demands the careful planning and consideration of the far-reaching challenges that affect pre-existing energy network infrastructure– in particular transmission and distribution grids.
As decarbonisation targets tighten, so electricity networks are coming under pressure to change at multiple spatial scales. Within nation states, there is the pressure to accommodate higher shares of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, which are more spatially dispersed and intermittent in their production patterns than the fossil and nuclear generators that shaped earlier rounds of grid construction. Beyond the state, there is growing interest in interconnecting grids across national borders, to facilitate market extension and security of supply. Added to this there are diverse demands for flexibility, emanating from households, communities and cities, to accommodate greater decentralised energy production, demand management and cross-vector integration (i.e. of heat, transport and electricity). Together, these pressures raise questions about the extent to which electricity network development can move beyond traditional efficiency-driven, market-reactive capacity expansion towards more strategic re-organisation, to better facilitate low carbon energy transition, handle the multiplying demands for coordination, and negotiate distributive questions about 'who pays?'
As a researcher involved in understanding innovation processes and change in low carbon energy systems, I am fully aware that the task at hand is not just to understand the technological possibilities, but how such change is to be realised. My research focuses on understanding the critical question of 'how' we accelerate action and progress to deliver renewable energy deployment at the regional level in electricity systems, despite the growing consensus about 'why' governments need to prioritise policy frameworks to accelerate renewable energy deployment and a developing knowledge base about 'what' needs to be done. Addressing the 'how' question requires investigating how changes to electricity systems are shaped by pressures and opportunities, influenced by unique place and context-specific conditions. These conditions include resources, governance capabilities, actor-networks, infrastructure endowment and histories. Clearly, renewable innovation processes, including renewable deployment, are not just objects pursued by national governments and incumbent actors such as energy companies, utilities and regulators but also involve a host of sub-national actors and social and political interests that can mobilise different visions, instruments and responses in connection with some of the mandates that sub-national governments might hold in various policy spheres (e.g. land use, planning, transport and mobility, social welfare and economic development). These spheres become a means through which regional and local actors can influence energy infrastructure change. While infrastructure steering at the local and regional levels is considered problematic, grid capacity and infrastructure upgrades (including new developments, maintenance and delivery) becomes a site-specific issue that stresses the role that the sub-national governments can play in steering energy network infrastructure change.
But what role can sub-national governments play in restructuring electricity grid networks to accommodate the expansion of renewable energy? My work has investigated the challenges of accommodating rapid, but spatially-concentrated renewable energy growth in Italian regions, in conjunction with (traditionally) centralised energy network governance, wider shifts towards constitutional decentralisation and the challenge of reconfiguring networks to accommodate the expansion of RE, much of which is occurring beyond cities, in rural areas with limited grid capacity. The reconfigurations required in energy infrastructure networks to accommodate the expansion of renewable energy, in Italy, have displayed specific regional manifestations with regional governance being used to promote innovations and solutions on the ground to address bottleneck and network constraints. My work highlighted that regions should not only be seen as a layer of governance but as sites of problems - and action - which spark innovations. While the regional level has had a modest influence in the regulation of network infrastructure in Italy, regions have had a role in rendering their territory, directly or indirectly, available for infrastructural investment and in mediating potential transmission and distribution networks constraints.
My research has shown that regional governments, operating within multi-tier governance system, are well suited to play a relevant role in coordinating the array of key actors at national and regional levels engaged in the promotion of renewable deployment and infrastructure renewal. Collaborative relationship established with regional actors can be effective not only in enabling extensive exchanges of expertise but also in influencing outcomes (e.g. facilitating consenting processes, enhancing infrastructure, and allowing regions to become sites of experimentation with innovative technologies- e.g. storage and smart grids). In doing so, regions could lead and facilitate processes of negotiation of priorities around infrastructure investment to address not only the need for a long-term strategic infrastructure plan that can help regions to deliver commitment to 'net-zero' and renewable energy targets but also to mobilise investment and economic opportunities to aid a most needed post-Covid-19 economic recovery.
De Laurentis, C., and Cowell, R., 2021, Reconfiguring energy flows: energy grid-lock and the role of regions in shaping electricity infrastructure networks, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning
De Laurentis, C. and Pearson, P. J. G. (2021) Policy insights for regional renewable energy deployment, Energy, Sustainability and Society
De Laurentis, C., (2021), Regional renewable energy deployment: a process of aligning multi scale institutions and regional agency, Local Environment