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100% renewable energy in Europe could be possible soon
Wind and solar are getting much cheaper. This is official according to five technology platforms for renewable energies from the EU. Economic and political conditions indicate a faster transition to renewables than thought possible 2–3 years ago.
In 2015 the European Technology and Innovation Platform on Wind Energy (ETIPWind), part of the Energy Union, targeted a cost for offshore wind energy of less than 10 cents by 2020, and less than 7 cents by 2030.
At the end of 2016 the winning tender for the huge 600 MW Krigers Flak park in the Danish Baltic Sea came in at 5 cents, half of the EU target and 4 years ahead of the 2020 deadline. The subsidy applies to the first 11 years. After that it will pay its own way. This was not a one-off occurrence, as it was preceded by other low-cost projects during 2016.
By comparison, the UK government will guarantee 11 cents per kWh for nuclear power over a 35-year period.
According to another technology platform for photovoltaic solar, one target was to reduce system costs by 20 per cent from 2015 to 2020. This may already have been reached by 2016 for large systems, both fixed-tilt and trackers. Investment banker Lazard noted an 85 per cent decrease in cost from 2009 to 2016, despite incomplete data for 2016. The year saw auction prices of around 3 US cents/kWh in Mexico, Dubai and Chile. The EU cost target is sure to be reached before 2020. Other targets are increased efficiency and longevity and a halving of costs for building-integrated PV. The jury may still be out there.
A similar situation applies to targets for geothermal, concentrating thermal solar, and ocean tidal and wave energy.
It is clear that some renewables can beat new fossil and nuclear power right now. But what is needed to cut CO2 emissions seriously is that they can also beat existing coal and gas, and do it soon.
Acid News 4/2016 reported on a 100-per-cent renewable scenario for Europe, mainly based on wind and solar, produced by the company ABB in 1992, with a 100-year perspective. Now we know it is feasible much sooner.
But this is not just about economics. The traditional power companies, such as RWE, EDF, Eon/Uniper, Vattenfall, Fortum, Engie, CEZ and others would have enormous stranded assets in the event of a rapid transition to an electricity system dominated by renewables. They and their allies are not going to take this blow sitting down. They have a lot of political clout, and they will use it as best they can.
They are already doing so. Last year the Swedish power industry lobbied successfully to get rid of a nuclear power tax (about .65 euro cent/kWh). They may avert the threat of more wind power by skewing the renewable fuel obligation, so that new wind power cannot enter the market soon, but would have a big impact in 2027–2030.
These measures may possibly save some nuclear reactors in Sweden. So-called capacity markets are extending the lives of coal and nuclear power plants in the UK, and more straightforward subsidies for coal have been or are currently being promoted in Poland, Spain and Germany.
The member states are vulnerable to lobbying from the power industry, so it is important what the EU does.
The European Union has been involved in energy planning since the early 1950s. With the consensus on nuclear power long gone, and coal generally seen as obsolescent and unsustainable, energy policy became less of a Europe-wide issue and more up to member states. This may be changing with the Energy Union.
The union wants more security of supply (less dependence on Russia and the Mideast), more energy efficiency, more renewables, more interconnections and less greenhouse emissions. This vision includes the ITER thermonuclear fusion project, but this technology is irrelevant for energy choices as it will not reach the market for several decades, if at all. It also includes advanced nuclear fission (fast-breeder reactors), which likewise will not be around as a power producing technology by 2030, which is a target year for EU climate policy. The vision also, theoretically, opens the way for carbon sequestration and storage, CCS. Although the EU has heavily promoted CCS, and offered very large funds for projects, for example in the NER300 programme, there were no takers, so the money went to renewables instead.
So if Europe wants to do anything at all on energy, it will have to go for renewables and efficiency, along the lines proposed by the technology platforms.
Renewables are where the action is. Eighty-six percent of new power capacity in Europe came from renewables: 59 per cent from wind and 32 per cent from photovoltaics. They replaced coal and oil power. Wind energy alone supplied more than 10 per cent of EU-28 electricity consumption, all according to WindEurope’s annual statistics.