The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
As well as shifting to clean generation, investment in grid upgrades is also imperative
As heatwaves continue to sweep across Europe and concerns build around securing gas supply for the winter, there have never been clearer, more tangible signals to accelerate the clean energy transition.
Continued reliance on fossil fuels endangers the climate, damages public health, and undermines the sovereignty and affordability of Europe’s energy, and ultimately its economy.
A clean electricity supply will play a leading role in the energy transition. The technologies which enable power sector decarbonisation are commercially mature and their costs continuously falling; as such, they are primed for rapid deployment.
When coupled with widespread electrification of end-use sectors, this constitutes one of the most cost-efficient ways to reduce emissions and decrease fossil fuel consumption across the whole economy.
Not only has a clean power system become recognised as a crucial enabler of wider energy system decarbonisation, but a clear consensus is emerging around 2035 as a key milestone.
Notable publications from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that advanced economies must achieve close to zero-emissions electricity generation by 2035 to remain within the limits of a Paris Agreement 1.5C compatible pathway.
Political commitments are starting to align with this milestone on the route to net zero. Most recently, leaders of the G7 committed to achieving a fully or predominantly decarbonised power system by 2035.
Achieving 2035 clean power in Europe means that the power system must be transformed in a relatively short period of time. It represents a steep increase from the current level of approximately 56% clean electricity supply.
Furthermore, it must accomplish the dual feat of decarbonising power generation while expanding supply to meet higher demand due to electrification and green hydrogen production.
A recent study confirmed that not only is this possible, but that achieving an almost fully (~95%) decarbonised power system by 2035 is actually cheaper than following the route laid out by current policies. The additional upfront investments required for accelerated action, such as the faster deployment of wind and solar, are offset by avoided infrastructure build and running costs of thermal assets.
Furthermore, the increasingly clean and expanded power supply enables wider energy system decarbonisation, resulting in significant cost savings from efficiency and avoided fossil fuel consumption, while also improving Europe’s energy sovereignty. We estimate the savings could be around a trillion euros and that is without accounting for an ongoing fossil fuel price crisis.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT
As clean power by 2035 becomes ingrained within the narrative around net zero by 2050, the focus of debates is shifting from when to how. Delivering an almost fully decarbonised power system in the next twelve years represents a significant challenge and not only in terms of the required acceleration of efforts within relatively a tight timeframe.
Such change requires acceptance of and commitment to a paradigm shift towards a future power system that is highly flexible and highly renewable.
Today’s power system, one based primarily on thermal turbines whose output is adjusted according to conventional demand profiles, must be transformed and the future system set-up will appear quite different. This in itself is often a barrier to the energy transition as power system planners and operators struggle to place their confidence in a structure which will be among the first of its kind.
Commitment to clean power necessitates that Europe’s electricity supply becomes dominated by wind and solar production and the system supported by a high degree of flexibility on both the demand and supply sides.
This will allow fast response to variations in renewable output and power demand, ensuring system balance and supply reliability. Technical studies and accumulating real-world experiences demonstrate that such a system can be reliable and resilient to extreme events.
The central challenge of delivering a clean power system in the next twelve years is undoubtedly the acceleration of wind and solar deployment. As the cheapest and cleanest forms of electricity, wind and solar need to scale rapidly to become the backbone of an expanded power system.
Annual additions of wind and solar need to reach a rate approximately four times higher than the average of the previous decade, with solar poised for particularly rapid growth. While there are positive signs of growing momentum, plans for on-the-ground delivery appear to be falling short.
Resolving administrative barriers and developing effective enabling frameworks should be among the priority tasks of the EU and national governments in the next few months and years to bring about deployment at speed.
This significant transformation in supply will be accompanied by a parallel transformation in “background” infrastructure, that is, the power grid and its interface between consumers, producers and distributors.
This is imperative to support the rapid conversion to a highly renewable system. It includes a wide range of technologies, with perhaps the most notable for their necessity but currently limited levels of attention being interconnection and demand-side flexibility.
The latter, deriving from smart devices, battery storage and demand-side response, will allow system operators to shift demand by a number of hours to better coincide with periods of renewable output. Electrification must therefore be accompanied by policies that incentivise demand-side flexibility in heating, transport and industry.
Europe’s interconnected electricity grid, facilitating the distribution of supply to match demand over a large geographic region, will play an increasingly important role in providing system flexibility. As wind and solar scale become the dominant generation source, the level of Europe’s interconnectivity must similarly expand.
Indeed, a clean power system in Europe requires the existing interconnection capacity to double by 2035. Based on the typically long timeframes for commissioning such projects and our vicinity to 2035, securing a clean power system requires stepping up investments in this area immediately.
It is clear that early decarbonisation of the power system brings high value, not only as a key milestone for a successful, timely energy system transition but also by providing immediate, tangible benefits. Now is the moment to prepare the groundwork that will enable the development of a clean power system by 2035. The next few years will determine the course of Europe’s energy transition. •
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