Europeans gawked at the bizarre comments of US climate envoy John Kerry, who claimed last month that the transition to a climate-neutral world hinges upon “technologies we don’t yet have” and that developing them could take decades. Kerry’s statements were outlandish—and undermine efforts to curb global warming.
In Europe, the clean-energy transition is gearing up, and the focus here and elsewhere must be on building what works as quickly as possible. The European Union is already shifting to energy systems devoid of oil and coal, and by 2050, at the latest, of natural gas too. The lifeblood of this epic undertaking is the simplest, cheapest of all clean-energy sources: solar and wind, which will produce anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of Europe’s electricity in the next two to three decades—that is, if the EU is to hit its targets of cutting emissions by 55 percent from the 1990 level by 2030 and respect the 1.5–2°C threshold of the Paris Agreement. Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Portugal are demonstrating that it is not only possible to shift to regionally networked, carbon-neutral power supplies without science-fiction wonders or nuclear power but also that these sources are cheaper, cleaner, and safer.
In Europe, almost all of the major transition scenarios from leading think tanks show that Europe can reach net zero, or very close to it, with existing tech and policies—most critically, renewables, smart grids and other digital components, demand management, advanced storage, standby reserve gas capacity, and, of course, energy efficiency everywhere and at warp speed.
Renewables-produced hydrogen, known as green hydrogen, critical for storing and transporting clean power, is the one element that isn’t quite cost-ready, but the price is dropping as the number of projects rises, and there’s little reason to doubt that the same effects that swept microchips, solar panels, and offshore wind won’t swiftly push down the cost curve for hydrogen too. Most of the necessary clean-energy technology is so widespread and affordable that individuals, businesses, communities, and cities are already using it themselves—through solar self-consumption, peer-to-peer energy trading, e-car sharing, small wind and solar parks, building retrofitting, and much more.
Global scenarios, such as the new International Energy Agency’s road map for the global energy sector, show much the same: We have to scramble over the next decade, innovating as we move forward, but we can’t waste time on Hail Mary passes such as carbon capture and sequestration and new nuclear technology. And we certainly shouldn’t continue to build more gas pipelines, conventional nuclear stations, or waste-to-energy plants.
The foundation to transforming our centralized, Big Energy–dominated, conventional fossil-fuel-based systems is the turbocharged rollout of renewables, distributed according to geography: wind turbines on gusty flatlands, and geothermal power stations where accessible subterranean waters run hot. In other words, the new energy system is decentralized, with clean-energy generation units spread out across regions and every locality, city, or industry running on diverse and constantly in-flux energy supplies. Europe has been working on this for 25 years—renewables generated 39 percent of Europe’s 2020 electricity, driven by the precipitous growth of wind and solar power, whose use has almost doubled in five years. A Europe-wide 65 percent share of renewables in the power sector by 2030, the EU’s new goal, is a tall order but doable, experts concur. The EU’s current energy mix, containing more renewables-generated electricity than that from fossil fuels, has sunk the power sector’s CO2 emissions by a quarter since 1990, despite a rise in electricity demand of about a quarter.
The strategy for the next decade is to double down on the proven wunderkinds: In terms of renewables, that’s undeniably solar and wind. Solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, on and offshore, have become the world’s cheapest energy. Between 2010 and 2019 the cost of solar photovoltaics dropped by 82 percent and onshore and offshore wind by 40 percent and 29 percent, respectively, and further declines are expected.
Nuclear power is the priciest of all, alongside diesel and gasoline-powered engines, as well as the most cumbersome to put into operation (and complicated to integrate into a decentralized energy system). The price per kilowatt hour that the UK had to guarantee the French utility Électricité de France and Chinese partners to build the $31 billion Hinkley Point C was 13 US cents; today, global solar and wind prices lie under four cents per kilowatt hour, and in the wholesale EU prices are around six cents.
This is why solar and wind are becoming the backbone of Europe’s renewables supply, with dramatically greater ramping-up potential than other renewables, such as hydroelectric and biofuels. In fact, with solar and wind at the crux of the transition, there’s a credible case that Europe can hit net-zero emissions by 2040 or 2045 instead of 2050. Scenarios that pick up this path from where we stand today envision solar generation doubling, tripling, or even multiplying tenfold by 2030, at which point it would cover between 11 to 30 percent of electricity generation. While the Brussels group Climate Network Action (CAN) Europe makes the more accelerated case (which includes phasing out nuclear completely), other modelers sketch a somewhat more cautious route, with nuclear declining but remaining in the mix. Despite massive efficiency gains, the power sector will grow as renewables are increasingly called upon to cover heating and transportation, in the form of heat pumps, e-transport, and e-fuels—all mature, affordable technologies available on the market.
Wind is the other workhorse, already supplying over a third of the EU’s clean energy. But this is just the beginning: Onshore, by multiplying between two- and sixfold by 2030, can generate as much as 40 percent of Europe’s power, while offshore must ratchet up even more, perhaps kicking as much as another 11 percent of generation by decade’s end. The scenario of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin think tank, is more circumspect: Wind power should account for 26 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2030. In any case, under the Agora Energiewende, CAN Europe, or EU scenarios, the necessary scale of build-out required is staggering, but achieving it will depend on political will and determination, not inventions.
Of course, an energy system based on weather-dependent renewables requires help to cover those times when sun and wind are in short supply. This isn’t a dealbreaker, as detractors claim, but rather the nature of our new clean-energy system. There’s a palette of technology and policy options to balance energy supply and demand, and thus keep the grid stable in a heavily weather-dependent energy system. Eventually, they’ll get the job done across Europe, as they do now for days at a time in Northern Europe and weeks on end in Portugal.
First, 24/7 renewables will lend a substantial hand. Geothermal, bioenergy, hydropower, and ocean power are already valuable sources when wind and solar are maxed out or simply unavailable. And although all of these alternative energies are being ramped up alongside wind and solar, experts agree that their potential is limited by geographic and environmental considerations. Ocean power (tidal/wave) is less advanced, but like floating wind turbines, concentrating solar power, wind kites, and hydrogen, its development is a matter of investment, tweaking, and wide-scale adoption—no giant technological breakthroughs required.
Our new renewables-based power supplies will need to be ever more widely and evenly distributed. In contrast to fewer large power stations connected to traditional one-way grids, decentralized systems will network with an increasing number of small-to-medium-scale renewable production facilities, including millions of prosumers, who feed electricity into the system. The thicker and smarter the transmission network, the more renewables and energy producers can be handled, and over larger swaths of territory. By integrating such sustainable features as smart meters, renewable resources, and smart appliances, smart grids save energy, reduce costs, and increase reliability and efficiency, according to EU researchers.
About 70 percent of Europe now is linked by smart-grid infrastructure—including almost all of Northern Europe. In other words, it’s basically how much of Europe’s power system already works, and although advances in automation and communication technologies are happening and welcome, the trick now is to expand it everywhere.
This highly intelligent technology also enables consumers to take advantage of demand-side response options—another key tool for balancing intermittent energy. Demand management, which has made strides in Northern Europe, as well as in the United States and Australia, refers to the shifting of energy demand, through price incentives, to times when supply is high or cheap. It basically entails convincing energy customers, including industry, to reduce energy consumption during peak demand hours, and is considered to have vast, yet-untapped potential to reshape demand scenarios so that renewables can carry an increasing share of the load. The IEA says demand-side flexibility will play an enormous role in clean-energy systems and that the only thing hindering it is lack of regulation: namely, the markets that make it worth the while.
Advanced power storage, much like the logic of demand shifting, is an answer to renewables’ feeding too much (in excess of demand) at some times and too little at others. Until very recently, storing electricity was the biggest problem in clean-energy modeling. Like the early batteries in e-cars, battery storage on a scale larger than flashlights was cumbersome and expensive—and hydrogen, another storage option, was nowhere on the horizon. But that’s changed dramatically as the price of batteries has plummeted and their efficiency has soared. This has made batteries for e-vehicles, prosumer households, and businesses valuable assets, especially when linked together on a system-wide scale. Germany has invested massively in expanding battery storage capacity, and ordinary Germans are taking it into their own hands, too: There are now more than 300,000 battery storage systems installed in German households.
And when plugged into the intelligent network, the 3.2 million electric vehicles on Europe’s roads amount to that much storage capacity on wheels. Simply put, homes and businesses where cars are plugged in become more “interactive,” opening up a potentially large source of flexibility in the power system that didn’t exist before. “This is arguably one of the big synergies of our new energy paradigm,” Toby Couture, director of E3 Analytics, a German think tank, told The Nation. “The transition of the transport sector will ultimately end up helping and facilitating the transition in the power sector, enabling more renewables to be phased in, in a positive kind of feedback loop.“
Lastly, since renewables cannot expect to cover Europe’s energy full needs before 2040, 2045, or 2050, depending on whom you consult, natural gas will still be required as a reserve energy source that will jump in when energy demand outpaces green supply. The mounting evidence of natural gas’s deleterious impacts speak volumes against it, but it appears the lesser of evils if it functions only as a backup—and is not allowed to generate continuously. New gas-fired stations aren’t needed, and operators should be clear that carbon pricing and the expansion of inexpensive renewables will leave them with costly stranded assets if they ignore the writing on the wall.
What the planet needs is the implementation of smart policies based on the best of Europe’s practices for the large-scale deployment of renewables: robust support measures, conducive markets, and proper legal frameworks for this new clean-energy system. Experts at CAN Europe, Agora, and E3 Analytics also note that Europe itself must get behind the success stories on a wholly new scale of ambition to hit EU targets.
Let us not forget that our current energy and industrial systems were nurtured through regulatory systems, specially designed markets, and massive state support—and, indeed, that remains the case today. Now, in Europe, they are all being redesigned for a new energy system that works very differently, but that still works. Striking off on quixotic paths in hope of finding an elixir amounts to a tragic and perhaps disastrous waste of time and money.