Europe can be climate neutral by 2040 with solar and wind power

By: Emila Samuelsson

Paula Abreu Marques, senior official at the European Commission’s energy directorate, claimed that the report will give “food for thought” to the commission modellers currently examining the effects of raising the EU’s climate targets for 2030. The study also highlights the importance of solar power and states that more than 60% of the energy mix would be generated by solar panels (in all scenarios except Laggard). 

The report is entitled 100% Renewable Europe – How To Make Europe’s Energy System Climate-Neutral Before 2050, and was published on 15 April. The study explores Europe’s energy transition by modelling three scenarios with the boundary conditions and main results shown in the figure below. The Laggard scenario reflects a slower transition and generates a 62% renewable energy share, 90% greenhouse gas emission reductions and misses the European Commission’s climate neutrality and Paris Agreement targets. The Moderate scenario includes a medium-pace energy transition towards 100% renewables by 2050 and meets the climate neutrality and 2°C Paris Agreement targets. The Leadership scenario applies a rapid transition over the next two decades and achieves the 100% renewable energy target, zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, as well as the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target.

The bottom-line of the study is that it is possible for Europe to become fully climate neutral by 2040 by merely going completely renewable, without measures such as carbon sinks. According to the modelling the total cost of reaching 100% by 2050, in the moderate scenario, is 6% lower than the cost of inadequate action in the Laggard scenario. The study’s modelling of a cost-optimal energy transition generates several additional key findings.

The European energy system is currently based on 85% fossil fuels and nuclear power. A high electrification rate is vital for a 100% renewable energy system to become reality. Despite an overall increase in demand for energy services, the primary energy demand decreases due to increased efficacy, and the Leadership scenario results in the highest electrification share, at 86%. This development would enhance sectoral integration and create significant efficiency gains for the energy system, thus lowering the cost of transition. 

According to the study, the two main pillars of the energy transition will be solar and wind. Wind power has higher capacity factors and will provide the highest shares of electricity generation up to 2030. However, according to this study solar will become the main source of electricity from 2030 onwards (in both the moderate and leadership scenarios). This is partly due to the fact that solar panels are capable of being installed in any size for distributed and centralised applications and partly due to the cost-competitiveness of solar.

Another crucial technology for the transition is electrolysers for hydrogen production. The study states that renewable hydrogen will become Europe’s second key energy carrier. From 2030, renewable hydrogen will be able to contribute to the full decarbonisation of the transport and heat sectors. At present, the transport sector, with 8% share of renewables, has the farthest to go to reach 100% renewables. Europe could become an exporter of a product of hydrogen – synthetic fuels – (in the leadership scenario). This product will be vital especially for marine and aviation to become carbon neutral.

When it comes to the heating sector another vital development presented in the study is that heat pumps will emerge as a core part of the energy system. By 2050 over 60% of the heat generation capacity will be covered by heat pumps. 

At least 7.7 TW of solar and 1.7 TW of wind are needed by 2050, according to the report (Moderate scenario). Today there is 150 GW of installed solar power capacity. For these changes to take place the report introduces several recommendations.

One recommendation was to establish an implementation body for clean energy, as inappropriate regulatory and administrative frameworks are the main barrier to the deployment of solar in Europe. This could also address the constraints of limited grid and land access as well as lengthy permitting requirements.

To unlock the full potential, it is likewise important to promote involvement in solar installations and support “citizen-energy” concepts in which communities get involved in utility-scale solar installations. This will provide valuable grid services and drive the cost-efficient achievement of a climate-neutral Europe.

The EU has highlighted the need for a renovation wave, by developing a solar rooftop programme that exploits the 90% of European rooftops that are currently unused. This could contribute to the energy volume needed. Regulations need to encourage all new and renovated commercial, industrial and residential buildings to include solar panels. 

Investments need to be made in expanding and modernising electricity grids. To address the demand for smart, distributed infrastructure, the concept of Projects of Common Interest requires further development. These key cross-border infrastructure projects will link energy systems of the EU countries. 

The deployment of decentralised flexibility resources such as EV charging stations, heat pump and battery storage support needs to accelerate. It is also important to optimise the utilisation of local renewable assets to make energy systems more flexible and efficient. 

A final recommendation is to develop the competence to unlock the potential of solar jobs. The shortage of an EU workforce with the necessary skills in clean energy technologies has become a challenge. In Europe, solar could deliver over 4 million jobs by 2050. Measures such as training programmes can eliminate this bottleneck. It is also important to push for the required technologies to be developed in Europe to ensure energy security in a long-term perspective. 

In discussions about solar and wind power a common insecurity is the intermittent and erratic nature of the power source. The study concludes that existing technology can handle this variability. Energy exports, electrolysers, batteries and heat storage will provide the system with the flexibility needed when it comes nighttime and wintertime support.

Smart sector integration is a crucial component for the Green Deal and the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan. It is not merely about creating an energy system that is clean, but one that is also efficient. “Energy efficiency always has to come first,” Marques stated. She continues: “But it is not only energy efficiency first at the end-use, it’s across the system, the whole chain.” It is vital to view the transition from a holistic and long-term perspective. Energy minister of Luxembourg, Claude Turmes, states: “This study comes at an important point in time and will spark useful conversations on the ongoing European climate negotiations and recovery plans.” 

In conclusion, the potential of solar energy and the benefits of accelerating the energy transition are highly beneficial. They are of great importance when it comes to setting the pathway to becoming the world’s first climate neutral continent by 2050 or sooner. 

Emilia Samuelsson

Based on: 

SolarPower Europe and LUT University (2020): 100% Renewable Europe: How To Make Europe’s Energy System Climate-Neutral Before 2050.

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