Opinion - 25/March/2019

Some things are not negotiable

Modelling aimed at creating a zero-carbon energy system by 2050 will never be perfect, but a new report shows enough knowledge now exists to make clear decisions about the infrastructure and investments needed to move forward in the right direction, writes Lisa Fischer, Senior Policy Adviser at think-tank E3G

Policymakers know enough about the technologies and practices that will, and will not, be part of a zero-emissions future to take clear policy decisions that will accelerate change

 

The waves of climate activism, sparked by the Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg’s #FridayforFuture, have renewed the pressure on European policy makers to set targets for greenhouse gas emissions that genuinely improve the chances of preventing dangerous climate change. But, as Thunberg said at the UN General Assembly: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.”

This translates into policymaking in the EU. We need to start moving from illustrative scenarios towards real world choices. There are many choices we can make today that will affect whether we can be close to a zero-emissions energy system in 2050. Of course, we do not have all the answers, but we know what technologies and practices are not part of the picture and where we must step up our efforts.

 

Different scenarios

A new report from Cambridge Econometrics and Element Energy for the European Climate Foundation illustrates what these are. The report was compiled in close consultation with experts from industry, academia and NGOs.

The modelling team examined six possible configurations of a zero-carbon energy system in 2050, integrating the road transport, heating and power sectors across two distinct climatic zones (a colder, northern European one, and a sunnier, Mediterranean one).

Three of their scenarios consider high levels of zero-carbon gas in the energy system (mainly hydrogen produced from renewable electricity) and three consider much higher levels of direct electrification, including for the heating and transport sectors.

None of the scenarios relies on 100% electrification and all contain some green molecules. But all of them show there are three things every feasible zero-carbon energy system will need. These are non-negotiable parts of the energy transition.

The first non-negotiable aspect is much higher levels of buildings efficiency. Of course, this will require investment, but the modelling finds that overall system costs could be reduced by nearly a quarter if really deep energy efficiency measures are introduced across Europe (against a reference scenario based on current EU polices). Most of these savings come from reducing peak heating demands from buildings in colder countries especially.

The second non-negotiable aspect is, perhaps unsurprisingly, clean electricity and smart flexibility. In both colder and warmer climates, smart flexibility combined with short-term battery storage will reduce the need both for thermal backup power and for the curtailment of variable renewable power. In the most cost-effective scenario, smart flexibility reduces the need for thermal back-up by more than half, while the curtailment of variable renewable power falls by over two-thirds. “Increasingly, the electricity system will move from responding to demand to responding to net-demand,” says the report.

The third non-negotiable aspect of the energy transition is innovation to solve the challenge of inter-seasonal (long-term) energy storage. Despite investments in demand side response, in colder climates there will still be days when power demand will outstrip generation. In the report, green hydrogen (generated from variable renewable sources via electrolysis) is shown to be a viable option for the storage required. This would require a serious programme of support to boost electrolyser development and renewables deployment, to ensure Europe has the capacity to produce enough green hydrogen to meet its needs — even if these end up being modest.

 

 

Policy priorities

These three non-negotiable points should be the basis for today’s policymaking based on:

  • Protecting consumers by prioritising investments in energy efficiency and demand flexibility over fossil-related investments. There seems to be an emerging consensus that volumes of zero-carbon energy carriers in 2050 will be well below today’s natural gas volumes (see for example the Gas4Climate study)
  • Building investor cofidence with an unambiguous renewables and smart electrification agenda. The fact the European Commission will revisit how it chooses its priority energy infrastructure in the light of decarbonisation targets is a great opportunity to complete the shift from fossil infrastructure to demand side response, smart electrification and renewable electricity.
  • Strengthening EU competitiveness by supporting new technologies to solve outstanding challenges, including long-term clean energy storage and heat networks.
  • Managing climate-related risk by establishing science-based definitions to distinguish between zero-carbon gases and different types of lower carbon gases in view of their lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, uncertainties with any cost or macroeconomic modelling to 2050 are unavoidable. But clear analysis helps move the conversation towards the management of these uncertainties. Smart electrification could be cheaper than upgrading and maintaining a hydrogen-ready gas network and, importantly, leave people with more disposable income, says the report. Just because gas networks already exist, this does not mean that repurposing them will necessarily be the most cost-effective option in the future. Decision makers should take this into consideration before introducing blanket incentives for zero-carbon gases.

Finally, the modelling shows that larger household disposable incomes, made possible by demand-side investments, will fuel the rest of the economy, resulting in additional job creation across a range of sectors. Jobs will be lost in some areas and re-skilling required for some workers. Working conditions for jobs in the growing services sectors need to improve to ensure they are attractive.

There will be challenges and there remain unanswered questions. But we know more than enough about 2050 to know where the bulk of our efforts should be going today. Time to act.

Lisa Fischer tweets at @FactFisching


Listen to experts from industry, the European Commission and think-tanks discuss the report’s findings and its implications for policymaking and a future zero-emissions energy system in Europe.


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