A 100% renewable energy scenario developed by Finland’s LUT University predicts that electricity could make up 85% of the EU’s energy mix by 2050, more than 60% of which would be generated by solar panels.
A fully renewable energy system could be reached by 2050 under a “moderate scenario” and even by 2040 in a “leadership scenario,” according to the study, published on Wednesday (15 April).
“A 100% renewable energy system in Europe is absolutely possible from a technical perspective,” said Dr Christian Breyer, professor of solar economy at LUT University.
“It is also the most affordable and safest option to achieving climate neutrality in Europe by 2050,” he added.
The study “really shows the amazing potential that the European Union has when it comes to renewable electricity,” said Aurélie Beauvais, policy director at trade association SolarPower Europe, which commissioned the study.
According to researchers at LUT University, solar and wind power will be the “two main pillars of the European energy transition,” with an installed capacity of at least 7.7 and 1.7 TW respectively by 2050.
“Due to its higher capacity factors wind provides the highest shares of electricity generation up to 2030,” the study found.
But solar’s versatility and cost-competitiveness “will make it the main source of electricity generation from 2030 onward,” it adds, referring to the spectacular fall in costs of PV modules.
However, to achieve such growth rates, solar must be coupled with a high rate of electrification and be more closely integrated with energy using sectors such as transport and industry.
Electrolysers that produce hydrogen from renewable electricity are seen as “a crucial technology” to reach 100% renewables and decarbonise the heat and transport sectors, the report said.
The study “really comes at the right time,” said Paula Abreu Marques, a senior official at the European Commission’s energy directorate who spoke at a webinar organised by SolarPower Europe on Wednesday (15 April).
“I am sure it will give them food for thought,” she added, referring to energy scenarios that Commission modellers are currently preparing in view of an “impact assessment” study due in September that will examine the costs and benefits of raising the EU’s climate targets for 2030.
Last month, a group of six EU countries asked the Commission to include a 100% renewable energy scenario in its long-term climate projections.
But the Commission has remained vague as to whether such a scenario would be included in its September impact assessment study.
“The Commission is assessing the impact of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50/55% by 2030 – and the contribution that all sectors can make,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV in emailed comments.
“The choice of the scenarios will be based on present realities of member states’ energy mix,” the spokesperson added.
During the webinar, Marques gave more insights into the Commission’s thinking. “We see that some member states are willing to get to 100% renewables, while others are not considering this. And for this reason, none of the scenarios that we have exploits a single decarbonisation option to the maximum technical potential,” she explained.
Taking an example, she said some countries intend to keep nuclear energy in their energy mix by 2050. “So this has to be factored in,” Marques said, explaining that the 100% renewables scenario would also have to account for decommissioning costs of nuclear facilities as well as waste disposal.
Even clean energy advocates admit that a 100% renewable scenario is likely to generate anxiety in some member states.
“The big elephant in the room is always to convince people that the lights won’t go out at some point,” said Michael Schmela, head of market intelligence at SolarPower Europe.
But he says available technologies can manage the variability of renewable power sources and avoid blackouts, especially at night when the sun doesn’t shine.
“Batteries, electrolysers and energy export provide the system flexibility that’s needed,” for day-to-day variations, Schmela argued. According to the report, batteries will represent “up to 70% of electricity storage”.
However, the study says growth in battery capacity can be limited thanks to “a highly integrated approach with full sector coupling and high electrification rates”.
And while renewable energy sceptics usually accept that batteries can store sufficient power to go through the night, a greater challenge is to “explain how an energy system running on solar and wind can survive throughout the winter,” the report admits.
According to SolarPower Europe, “heat storage plays a vital role” in winter while wind and hydropower could become the dominant producers of electricity during cold spells.
Solar power on a Terawatt-scale also raises questions about the raw materials used in the production of panels, some of which have been listed as “critical” by the European Commission.
Most components of solar panels are produced in china, which stopped its factories during the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting weaknesses in the solar supply chain.
How to get there
Even so, the role that solar power can play in the European Commission’s “smart sector integration” strategy, seems widely acknowledged by policymakers.
“Energy efficiency always has to come first,” Marques said during the webinar. “But it is not only energy efficiency first at the end-use, it’s across the system, the whole chain,” she said, explaining why she sees smart sector integration as a crucial component of the Green Deal and the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan.
“It is also a system that has to rely on electricity. And that electricity has to come, for the biggest part, from renewables,” she said.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)