The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of critical services and infrastructures to large scale crises and the power sector is no exception. Electrical power systems have been greatly and severely affected by the pandemic, threatening not only their current functionality but also their longer-term resilience, reliability and sustainability.
It is clear that novel approaches, such as power grid resilience and bringing multiple sectors together to provide essential services, are becoming more critical than ever for not only surviving, but thriving in the face of such crises.
Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on power systems and interdependent critical services
Covid-19 is having unprecedented impacts on power systems and the energy sector worldwide, including changes in the way we use electricity, energy prices, supply chain disruptions and delays in construction of large projects. In fact, global investment to new projects in power systems is expected to reduce by 20% or almost $400 billion compared with last year, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency. Perhaps one of the most prominent consequences of the pandemic is its economic impact and consequently for the first time in history the deployment of variable renewable energy sources may slow down.
Unavoidably, large investments in hydropower generation plants, which are a key renewable energy source and a large-scale technology against climate change, have been severely affected. Due to the pandemic induced financial losses, private sectors are scaling back their investments and some hydropower projects have seen bidders requesting deadline extensions, whilst others have withdrawn from bidding altogether.
To help tackle these issues governments are lending a helping hand to private sectors (e.g. UK and Australia), while the main sources of financing have also been shifted from private sectors to state-backed agencies and enterprises, as in the case of Myanmar. As the Covid-19 crisis worsens, countries’ priorities will be shifting from large construction hydropower projects to containing the spread of the virus, as in the case of some African countries.
Other significant impacts caused by the pandemic, particularly in developing countries, are the cascading effects on critical services that heavily rely on electricity, such as healthcare, water supply and communications. This situation is exacerbated in countries with low electrification, such as the sub-Saharan African region where 43% of the countries are electrified and only 28% of healthcare facilities benefit from reliable electricity. These places may also suffer from organizational resilience. This, along with with the difficulties of low-income customers and businesses to pay their electricity bills as a direct impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, means electricity utilities find themselves in a very difficult situation, never experienced before.
Responding to large-scale crises with multi-sector approaches
The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are clearly multi-dimensional so it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is great value in bringing not only the water and energy sectors together in hydropower planning, but also food, the economy, etc.
However, this is a grand challenge due to the complexity of each sector and their long history of being planned, operated and regulated in isolation. In fact, sometimes, when experts from different fields discuss, it is almost as if they were “speaking different languages”. Communication must be improved. These challenges and opportunities are recognised by the FutureDAMS project, which is delivering new freely accessible tools to plan and operate different sectors as a single cooperative system.
The FutureDAMS tools are not just complex mathematical and engineering models, but also platforms for those with different backgrounds and interests to communicate. These platforms, based on multi-criteria tools, allow users to express their needs and wants using terms that they understand (e.g. customers talking about energy and water bills) which is then translated by the tool to the terms used by other users and decision-makers (e.g. impacts on power network resilience metrics for electrical engineers). This is a visionary approach that is not limited to advanced tools to develop more resilient integrated systems, but instead places great importance on the people who will develop and use these systems.
Looking ahead to a brighter and greener future
We are facing one of the biggest challenges in modern human history. But this crisis also provides a unique opportunity to rethink our strategy and thrive by putting the decarbonization of the electricity sector on the Covid-19 recovery agenda. This is highlighted by the UK’s Climate Change Committee in an open letter to their Prime Minister and has been affirmed by The African Union Commission and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in a policy driven development to incentivise investments in renewables.
This calls for better communication and a collective response from organizations and stakeholders across many sectors – electricity generation, water management, finance and investment, agriculture, municipal management and others. Bridging the gaps between sectors with multi-sectoral planning and recovery approaches can significantly help shape this pathway towards a brighter and greener future.