Sanna Syri, Professor, Energy Economics: Climate change mitigation requires flexibility in energy systems

When Sanna Syri, Professor, Energy Economics at Aalto University, talks about energy systems, she does not mean the electrification of individual family homes. Syri’s research background is in large-scale energy systems – systems covering entire cities, suburbs, countries and continents. Even the Earth as a whole can be viewed as a global energy system.

“Examining the use of energy from the widest perspective possible reveals interesting patterns and opportunities to reach a better balance between energy demand and supply, thus significantly boosting the operation of the entire system. I find the idea of smart demand response management for a large system very interesting,” Syri says.

Syri’s current research topics include climate change mitigation on a large-energy-system scale, electricity markets, the cost-effectiveness of electricity storage, and the future of district heating, which is closely linked to these topics especially in Finland.

Electricity production is balanced by balancing consumption

The transition towards ecological electricity production methods, such as solar and wind power, is accelerating in Europe and throughout the world.

It is our only option: the Paris climate agreement and the EU’s environmental goals require a neutral or negative emissions footprint from each and every sector – otherwise it will be impossible to slow down climate change.

In future, the electricity production rate will fluctuate even more with the time of day, weather and natural phenomena. Thus, the price of electricity will also vary considerably during the day.

“At night, when it’s windy in Sweden or Denmark, wind power plants churn out electricity at a rate that pushes the price practically to zero. During the day, the price rises due to higher consumption, to fall again the following night,” Syri explains.

Electricity production is increasingly regulated by natural forces and not by human action. As we no longer have any control over the rate of electricity production, production peaks must be balanced by balancing consumption.

Finland’s comprehensive district heating network offers opportunities for demand response management

According to Syri, smart demand response management is a topic of interest throughout Europe and a trend that is gaining momentum. In Finland, the district heating networks of big cities, in particular, offer excellent opportunities for large-scale demand response management.

Professor Syri believes that the district heating systems would be able to adapt to the ongoing development with the help of large enough heat reserves.

Syri and her team are currently studying a solution in which water is heated either directly with an electrical resistor or a heat pump. Heat could be produced when electricity is cheaper and stored in water in large hot water tanks.

“This is a highly interesting development. Cities could use heat pumps when the price of electricity is particularly low. Balancing daily fluctuations through reserves is already common practice, and preliminary studies are being carried out on reserves that would help throughout the winter season.

Storing heat in water is also a highly efficient solution in terms of energy economics, compared to, for example, the batteries developed by Tesla.

“It’s much easier and more efficient to utilise the energy in the form of hot water. Storing electric energy in batteries costs around 100 times more than transforming it into heat. From this perspective, Finland’s district heating network provides an excellent and financially viable opportunity for demand response management,” Syri stresses.

Energy efficiency through stronger energy system integration

According to Syri, on a societal level, for example in smaller municipalities, various needs should be examined regionally to achieve better energy efficiency.

“Utilities in small municipalities, for example, should consider whether they could distribute some of the cooling or heating energy they produce to the neighbouring municipality,” she says. This has long been a tradition in Finland’s industrial regions.

Many of Adven’s heating plants serving industrial plants are already producing heat or hot water to local district heating networks. Adven’s comprehensive approach to the conceptualisation of a company’s energy solution means that the expert also takes into account local energy ecosystems beyond the customer’s plant.

The Recovery concepts help make industrial processes more energy efficient, which means that in future, there might be more waste heat, for example, available for local distribution.

Transition to renewable energy requires changes on all levels

Even though the transition towards renewable energy is inevitable and new alternatives and solutions are emerging at a brisk pace, big cities will probably have to resort to the use of more traditional energy production methods and fuels for some time to come.

“It will take a decade or two until the fossil-fuelled plants in metropolises can be fully replaced by more ecological energy sources,” Syri says.

“I believe that true effectiveness requires not only large-scale changes and demand response management, but also changes in private consumers’ behaviour.”