A deep decarbonisation of the European economy is doable, but it will rely heavily on an increased uptake of electricity – even if the challenges are very different across the individual use sectors, writes Kristian Ruby.
Kristian Ruby is the secretary general of Eurelectric, the trade association representing the electricity industry at a European level.
Back in December 2017, Eurelectric launched its Vision, committing our industry to power the EU economy with carbon-neutral energy and to pursue all efforts to decarbonise the electricity mix well before mid-century.
As the European Commission prepares to respond to the call from European Heads of State and Government for a long-term climate and energy strategy, it is important to keep one thing in mind: electrification is the foundation for any deep decarbonisation strategy. This is what a study we recently conducted with McKinsey & Company demonstrates.
The study examines three different scenarios. The first is aligned with the EU’s current commitments under the Paris climate agreement, namely an 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050. The second assumes increased reduction efforts to 90%, which could result from a political push and an agreement as part of international climate negotiations. The last scenario explores moving to fully decarbonising the EU economy with reductions of up to 95% compared to 1990.
The conclusion of the three scenarios is clear: deep decarbonisation is doable but will rely heavily on an increased uptake of electricity. In other words: electrification and decarbonisation are two sides of the same coin, even if the challenges in the individual use sectors are very different.
Driving e-mobility forward
The transport sector, responsible for a quarter of total EU emissions, has the longest way to go. Electricity accounts for only 1% of overall energy use in transport — mainly in railways.
A massive shift to electric passenger cars will become easier as the total cost of ownership tips in favour of electric cars. But the shift will also rely on policy and public-private partnerships to ensure the rollout of charging infrastructure.
While it may seem overly ambitious to suggest that 75-100% of all cars will be electric, there are examples where uptake exceeds expectations. More than half of new passenger cars sold in Norway are hybrid or full-electric.
Heavy duty road transport is also seeing rapid change and buses and medium-size trucks will likely become more largely electric in the coming years.
Powering low-carbon buildings
Buildings are doing a little better. A good third of the energy used in buildings is already electric, although the share differs across Europe. Significant potential exists for the electrification of cooking as well as space and water heating.
Many of the solutions already exist ( electric hobs, heat pumps and water heaters) and commercially competitive, but they need to be mainstreamed and outdated technologies such as domestic oil furnaces in older buildings need replacing.
The increased use of electric solutions in buildings will also help the power system itself. A good example is France, where eight million domestic electric water heaters help shift a power demand of three gigawatts away from peak load hours to times when variable power production is largely available.
A carbon-neutral industry powered by electricity
Decarbonising Europe’s industries will be complex as they are exposed to competition from outside the EU and their value chains differ greatly.
But direct electrification will play a key role, for example, in decarbonising low and medium temperature processes. Moreover, indirect electrification, such as hydrogen made with carbon-free electricity, has a significant potential to decarbonise heavy industrial processes.
Electrification is energy efficiency
Depending on the level of decarbonisation ambitions, our study finds that 40-60% of total final energy consumption needs to be electric by mid-century, up from just over 20% today.
Is this a commercial pitch for massive load growth in the power sector? No, on the contrary. Total energy use across society will need to fall dramatically to reach emission reduction objectives. Electrification and efficiency are the winning combination as, in many cases, electrification yields energy savings.
Be they heat pumps, electrically powered trains and cars or electric technologies for industrial applications, electric solutions are often more efficient than their alternatives. Across the three scenarios studied, electrification delivers a third or more of the energy savings needed to reach the agreed emissions targets.
What about gas? All scenarios foresee a role for gas in the future energy system. But, just as the power system will change significantly over the next 30 years, so must the gas system. If we take the Paris objectives seriously, the future for the gas industry lies in renewable gas, synthetic gas made with carbon-free electricity and targeted sector coupling with the electricity system in areas where gas has a unique value proposition, for instance, volume energy transport, industrial processes and seasonal storage.
Regional room for manoeuvre
A last important finding of our study is that pathways across Europe will differ and that some regional room for manoeuvre will be necessary. European member states have different starting points for decarbonisation. In Poland, for instance, deep decarbonisation will depend strongly on the commercial availability of key transition technologies.
The bottom line remains, however, that electrification is an indispensable part of any ambitious decarbonisation strategy. We hope that this will be duly considered in the context of Europe’s long-term climate and energy strategy.