Renewables industry says – we can power the EU!

A new report by the European Renewable Energy Council provides hope of a more coordinated industry low-carbon lobby – and shows how to do 100 per cent renewables by 2050.

By 2050, almost all of the European Union's energy demands could be met by renewables, a new study looking at the electricity, heating/cooling and transport sectors has concluded. RE-Thinking 2050 is authored by the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), an industry umbrella group whose member organisations include various renewables associations such as EWEA (wind), EPIA (solar cells) and ESTIF (solar hot water).

Apart from its findings, the report is significant in demonstrating that the renewables industries can get their act together, agreeing not only to common scenarios but also shared policy recommendations.

The old industries, such as fossil and nuclear, can always flex lobbying muscle. But the future has no lobby, or so they say... With this report under their belt, EREC may be able to increase their own effectiveness and show that the future does indeed have a voice.

While RE-Thinking enhances the hope that the renewables industries can lobby for a common vision, the big unknownis still efficiency. Thousands of studies have shown that efficiency has enormous potential and that it is very often the cheapest and fastest option for reducing emissions, but progress remains slow. The efficiency industries are yet to form a strong, common EU lobby organisation. Potentially they are a formidable force, including many very large companies such as the biggest producers of glass, lighting, pumps, insulation and so on. However, many of the businesses selling energy efficiency in one form or the other do not yet see themselves as such.

A coherent low carbon future lobby must include the efficiency industries. Euro-Ace, the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings, is a good starting point.

As detailed in Figure 1, RE-Thinking envisages a massive scale-up of renewable energy sources in the electricity sector between now and 2050, with the largest single contributions in that year coming from solar photovoltaic and wind power. Electricity is, however, the simple part, even though the scenario assumes a growth of electricity consumption from 3362 TWh in 2007 to between 3491 and 4987 TWh in 2050, depending on efficiency targets.

It is noteworthy that CCS is not mentioned once. When the coal lobby speaks for CCS, they often mention the "carbon negative" option of biomass CCS. Evidently, this vision is not shared by the biomass lobby, who participated in the study through the European Biomass Industry Association. RE-Thinking makes no room for nuclear power.

The second sector considered in the report is heating and cooling, where a scenario for 100 per cent renewables is again outlined. In this scenario, energy use in heating and cooling is predicted to drop from 554 megatonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2007 to between 330.8 and 472.6 Mtoe in 2050. Table 1 sets out the breakdown of energy sources for the high use scenario.

This vision is somewhat more problematic, due in part to the substantial biomass contribution (see further below), but is doable. In fact it has largely already happened in Sweden, one of the coldest countries in the EU, where most heating either comes from biomass in district heating or from electric heat pumps.

The hard part is of course the transport sector. The study projects that by 2020, transport fuel use will have dropped back to 2007 levels of 450 Mtoe. Biofuels will rise from two per cent to nine per cent of the total due to the Renewable Energy Directive, which demands that 10 per cent of fuel is sourced from biofuels by 2020 but which only covers gasoline and diesel. The total transport fuel use falls to 325 Mtoe in 2050, of which 100 Mtoe is biofuels, a large increase from less than 8 Mtoe in 2007. Another 150 Mtoe comes from electric cars and a shift from road to rail. However, a 50 Mtoe use of fossil fuels remains.

It is these remaining transport emissions that scuttle the hope of a completely renewable energy supply in the EU by 2050. However, the report argues that 100 per cent is still within reach, effectively in the form of direct offsets generated by exporting renewable energy and/or biomass outside of the EU. This excess exists because the 100 per cent targets can be overshot in the electricity and heating and cooling sectors, where renewables can supply between 100 and 143 per cent of demand in each sector, depending on which assumptions of efficiency improvements are used.

The sum of it all amounts to a renewables contribution of between 96 and 137 per cent of the final energy consumption in 2050.

Figure 1: Projections of renewable electricity production, in gigawatt (GW) capacity.

There are several probable objections from environmental and nature conservation NGOs. One is the very high use of biomass, a total increase across all sectors from 78 Mtoe in 2007 to 359 Mtoe by 2050, more than a quadrupling. It remains to be demonstrated if, with sufficiently strong incentives, biomass exploitation can be scaled up without putting food production, biodiversity and landscape values at risk.

However, large increases of useful energy can be expected, both due to more efficient conversion and an increased raw materials base, through use of what are currently seen as waste products such as straw, sewage and residues from the food and paper industry. To a limited extent, nor would an increase of land used for energy grass, energy wood and even algae pose too many problems. But an assumption made by the study, that 10 per cent of the biomass can be imported in the case of high energy consumption, is problematic. The solution is simple: this importation can be avoided with an aggressive efficiency target.

The risk of over-exploitation of biomass, however, is neither imminent nor unavoidable. RE-Thinking does not rely heavily on ocean energy, calling for just 14 Mtoe by 2050. Wave power may have a far greater potential than this, about which much more will be known within the next few years.

Forms of ocean energy other than wave power are either controversial (such as tide barrages) or difficult to evaluate (salinity gradient power) or both. "Ocean energy" may not be a very practical concept, but in an imperfect world lobbying organisations are not formed on theoretical considerations. The EU-OEA (European Ocean Energy Association), one of the participants of the study, may yet become a good approximation of a wave energy lobby.

One point in the 2050 vision which is bound to cause reservations from the NGO world is "small hydro". Hydro is projected to increase from 102 GW in 2007 to 194 GW in 2050, a consequence of the participation of ESHA (European Small Hydropower Association) in the study.

  2007   2020 2050
Biomass      61.2 120 314.5
Solar thermal      0.88 12 122
Geothermal    0.9 7 136.1
Non-renewable    491.02 360 0
Total      554 499 472.6

Table 1: Projections of energy use in heating and cooling, in megatonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe).

However, this technology-by-technology part of the vision is very unlikely to be realised, and many of the policies suggested by RE-Thinking are more general. These include:

  • Making the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive binding in every one of the 27 Member States, a seemingly modest, but practically radical demand.
  • Setting renewables targets for 2030, pointing the way to 100 per cent renewables by 2050.
  • Fully liberalising the energy market, including harmonisation of technical standards to pave the way for a pan- European smart grid.
  • Providing incentives for flexible suppliers. (Biomass CHP, geothermal power, and hydro are flexible, and wind power producers have the option of curtailing production when demand is exceeded. More flexibility so as to match supply and demand can be added through storage, electric heating in district heating and on the demand side.)
  • Phasing out all subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy.
  • An EU-wide Carbon Tax.

Less specifically, but nevertheless present in the study, is the awareness that technical fixes alone are not enough. Lifestyle changes will also be necessary. For example, the study suggests that transport energy growth can be substantially reduced by a shift towards public transportation, as other scenarios have also suggested.

RE-Thinking does not give all the answers on how to achieve the needed investments in new power, power lines and storage, but it gives one good hint: very large savings can be made by avoiding the use of imported fossil fuels. Assuming an oil price of $100/barrel by 2020 increasing to $200 by 2050, the study finds that use of renewables will save fuel costs of approximately €158 billion in 2020, €325 billion in 2030 and €1,090 billion in 2050.

The oil price assumptions are, as they should be, on the conservative side. But the one thing we know about future oil prices is that they will not follow a straight line. In a situation of actual scarcity, which is the likely consequence of Peak Oil, prices may shoot up much higher, and much faster. And that is only a small part of the environmental cost of staying with fossil fuels. On the other hand, rethinking – if done fast enough – may yet save us from such a disaster.

In all likelihood an even more radical "RE-Thinking" is needed, with more focus on 2020 and less on 2050.

Fredrik Lundberg

The full report: ReThinking 2050

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