European TSOs set out support for carbon neutrality by 2050

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Eight major European transmission system operators (TSOs) call for recognition as active contributors to electrification and decarbonisation.

Much of the focus of the energy transition is on the distribution sector with the decentralisation of the system and the connection of new resources such as rooftop solar and electric vehicles. But the transmission sector also plays a central role and to bolster their activities TSOs need to be recognised as enablers.

In a new joint paper, the eight TSOs, Terna (Italy), RTE (France), Elia Group (Belgium and Germany), TenneT (Netherlands and Germany), Amprion (Germany), Red Electrica (Spain), Swissgrid (Switzerland) and APG (Austria), point to their widening role in managing an increasingly complex and digitalised energy system on the path to carbon neutrality.

The paper, which aims to clarify and assess TSOs’ contribution to the decarbonisation of the energy system, highlights that direct electrification coupled with energy efficiency and the growing share of renewable generation are the primary tools.

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The TSOs state that their contribution to emissions reduction fall under two categories, of which one is to reduce the carbon footprint of their own activities.

In line with international emission standards, TSOs monitor their direct and indirect emissions and implement measures to reduce them. They do this through reducing leaks of the widely used sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) gas and replacing it with less harmful alternatives when technologically feasible. They also efficiently develop their infrastructure to limit grid losses, undertake energy efficiency measures in their switching stations and buildings, implement green procurement procedures and adopt circular economy approaches.

The second is by taking on the major challenge of integrating renewable generation and flexibility resources into the energy system and supporting the direct and indirect electrification of different sectors of the economy.

The main tools used by TSOs include the expansion and development of the power transmission grids, the integration of flexible assets and services into the system to facilitate demand side response, storage and sector coupling, and participation in debate and analytical assessment related to the future design of electricity markets, capacity mechanisms and congestion markets.

Digitalisation and investments in research and development are additional key approaches used to ensure effective renewables integration and the electrification of consumption.

Interconnections also can play a key role. They can be used to carry renewables surplus from one country to another that still relies on fossil fuels generation. They can enable local variations in electricity generation to be averaged out, which is particularly useful for integrating increasing shares of renewable sources into national electricity mixes.

The TSOs say it seems clear that the crucial role they are playing in the energy transition can only be fully appreciated when their contribution to the system as a whole is considered. With the magnitude of an individual TSO’s direct and indirect emissions currently reaching 1 million tCO2eq per year on average, the decarbonisation impact that all European TSOs could have on the energy system as a whole could reach up to 3 billion tCO2eq. per year.

Given this crucial role, assessment of a TSO’s performance should not stop at annual evaluations of its carbon footprint. Instead, the impact that a TSO has on the decarbonisation of the system as a whole, which will ultimately also contribute to the reduction of its carbon footprint, should be considered.

As an example, they cite the development of a new line connecting a TSO’s onshore grid to a wind farm, which will lead to an increase in its individual carbon footprint but to a net decrease in carbon emissions across the system due to the integration of carbon-free electricity over the lifetime of the farm.

TSO activities, which lead to system-level emission reduction, need to be explicitly mentioned in greenhouse gas emission inventories under common assessment and monitoring frameworks, in addition to the emission sources already associated with their carbon footprint, the eight TSOs say.