Ksenia Tolstrup: 'The energy transition needs flexibility'

09 January 2024 Consultancy.eu 6 min. read
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As Europe pushes ahead with decarbonisation efforts, it will require more low-carbon flexibility to offset the volatility of wind and solar power. Even more so as progressively more fossil-fuel-based generation is phased offline. We spoke with an expert in the field, Ksenia Tolstrup, on how she is helping energy players pivot their strategies to enable energy system flexibility.

Against the backdrop of the continent’s pledges to meet net zero goals, Europe must ramp up its shift to sustainable energy sources. According to Ksenia Tolstrup, a Principal with management consultancy Magnus Energy, such a huge undertaking necessitates collaboration across the public and private sectors, and multiple industries.

The electricity sector plays a central role in this transition. With variable renewable energy production stepping up, the sector is facing a mounting issue: volatility. “Flexibility in electricity systems has always been vital,” explains Tolstrup.

Ksenia Tolstrup: 'The energy transition needs flexibility'

“The topic is itself is not new. Electricity generation has always needed to match its consumption at all times. But what we are facing now is a combination of two trends. One is decarbonization with its ambitious targets for the integration of variable renewable generation. The other one is electrification of other sectors, heat (think of e-boilers and heat pumps) and mobility (think electric vehicles), as one of the consequences of moving away from fossil fuels.”

“Jointly, these two developments make it increasingly challenging to match generation and consumption and guarantee continuous system reliability. All in all, this means that electricity consumption is on the up, but generation is much more volatile. We are hence moving towards a system with a much higher magnitude of peaks and throughs.”

This, coupled with another parallel trend, makes for a risky situation, according to Tolstrup. The conventional thermal generation has a greater deal of flexibility, for example, gas plants can ramp up or down quickly to follow demand, but these are being phased out – for economic or policy reasons.

With climate change leading to increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather conditions – either harsh winters where demand for power rises in response to freezing temperatures, or roasting summers where there is unprecedented demand for electricity to power air-conditioning units – volatility is bound to rise further, making flexibility a crucial offsetting mechanism.

“We have been taking electricity flexibility for granted and it is becoming scarce,” Tolstrup goes on. “If there is no more flexibility, in the worst case, the lights go out. The mindset needs to change: flexibility is imperative for decarbonization! Then, we need to accept that flexibility is no longer a ‘byproduct’ of conventional generation.”

“While low-marginal-cost wind and solar reduce electricity prices, flexibility comes at cost and requires massive investment into new low-carbon technologies such as storage. In the end, I see three crucial elements to a successful integration of renewables: flexibility of supply and demand to smooth frequent peaks and troughs, diversification of generation sources to achieve a resilient system, and a robust electricity grid to ensure that power can always be transferred from A to B.”

“Flexibility is imperative for ensuring the successful integration of renewables into the energy mix.”

Magnus Energy

Tolstrup is an expert in electricity market developments and energy economics. From her role at Magnus Energy, a firm that operates at the forefront of Europe’s energy system transformation, she advises energy system stakeholders in the public and private sector in the areas of electricity market analysis, regulation and modelling as well as technical project management.

“What matters have I worked on since joining Magnus Energy? Lots related to flexibility – also beyond electricity – as well as project management and strategy definition. Interestingly, I just finalised a project on cross-border hydrogen infrastructure. Ultimately, electricity, hydrogen, but also heat and mobility all need to come together to solve energy-related challenges ahead.”

Working in consulting is not new for Tolstrup. Earlier in her career, she worked as a consultant for strategic player Concordiste in Vienna – participating in implementing energy efficiency projects in Eastern Europe – before holding roles in the energy and technology sectors. But in her eyes, she never really left consulting. “During my years at the Austrian Institute of Technology, I worked on client projects alongside research activities.”

After obtaining a PhD in Energy Economics from Delft University of Technology, however, Tolstrup decided the time was right for a change of scenery – one which would allow her to move closer towards project implementation. This was a move which she felt would help her support a wider range of players in the sector and reach more people with her expertise.

“I always wanted research to matter to the business,” she explains. “To have something I designed or analysed to be implemented in the end. Moving into consulting and closer to implementation allows me to do that.”

Building upon her expertise, Tolstrup recently made the step up internally within Magnus Energy to become  co-lead of its Technical Advisory practice, which provides quantitative energy analytics and energy system modelling services to clients across Europe.

Reflecting on her first eight months with Magnus Energy, she says she enjoys the wide variety of topics she has so far worked on and contributing to shaping the company‘s strategy. “It very rewarding to see your ideas put into practice – for the benefit of the company and our clients.”

Tolstrup meanwhile also serves as the linking pin with Magnus Energy’s broader portfolio of services. “With our combination of offerings, we intend to provide a whole range of strategy, decision support and project management services to energy system stakeholders. Helping them navigate energy system complexity, being prepared for upcoming regulatory, economic and technological changes.”

The energy challenge

Looking ahead, Tolstrup finds it “extraordinary what has already been achieved in the area of energy transition”, but also “how much is yet to be done”.

“Energy transition has many dimensions. The vertical one requires tapping into flexibility potential on all network levels and enabling consumers to provide flexibility, too. The development of digital solutions to enable that is already in full swing. The horizontal dimension covers multiple markets spanning member state borders. Such integrated energy markets allowing cross-border trade were, for instance, crucial in helping us overcome the energy crisis of 2022.”

“Beyond that, sector coupling, in brief thinking beyond electricity sector alone, should allow us to maximise overall availability of flexibility and improve energy system‘s planning and robustness.”

At Magnus Energy, Tolstrup feels that she is in just the right place to help the sector continue its mission. “This is why I joined the firm. I’m excited to be working on such impactful topics and to have the opportunity to contribute to the further growth of Magnus Energy.”