Contributed by Pierre Kunsch Physicist PhD in Sciences Honorary Professor at Free University of Brussels © 2022

We must stop rambling on about the Green Deal and the carbon neutrality objectives in the European Union (EU) that we are told could be achieved thanks to 100% so-called renewable energies, by massive electrification of the whole of the energy consumption [1]. The symbols of this transition are wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, variable energy sources, depending on the weather conditions.

A full-scale laboratory has existed for about twenty years. It allows you to form an unbiased opinion of what is possible and what is not. All data for electricity in the EU can be downloaded [2] and is presented in summary below.

First observation: electricity consumption increased by 9% between 2000 and 2021. If there had been a massive electrification of other energy consumption sectors for decarbonization, i.e. around 80% of the final energy consumed excluding electricity, we should have seen much more growth.

Second observation: wind and photovoltaic capacities, expressed in Gigawatts, i.e. in millions of kW, negligible in 2000, rose to 347.3 GW in 2021 (+2.678%). Meanwhile, traditional dispatchable capacities (natural gas, coal, nuclear, run-of-river hydro and biomass) have not decreased, but on the contrary increased, going from 493 GW to 563 GW (+14%). There was a sharp rise in natural gas (+230%) and a moderate rise in hydropower (+12%), offsetting the sharp reduction in coal capacities (-33%), a strong emitter of CO2, but also nuclear ( -21%), yet non-CO2 emitter. Total capacity has increased from 508 GW in 2000 to 916 GW in 2021, an increase of 80% to satisfy only 9% more consumption! The lion’s share is represented by variable renewables with 39% of this capacity. There was therefore no replacement of dispatchable sources by these so-called ‘clean’ renewables, and therefore no energy transition for electricity which would have led to the gradual disappearance of fossil sources. We do not see how and when this could change. There is no ill will here, but the simple observation that unpredictable sources of wind and sun production alone cannot ensure the energy supply. Dispatchable sources are essential and their capacities must imperatively follow the progression of demand – which is proven by the growth figures for electricity demand in the EU.

Third observation: As for the production of electrical energy in Terawatt-hours per year (TWh/year), i.e. in billions of kWh/year, the figures show the low contribution of wind and solar power, i.e. 19% with 547 TWh/year out of 2,866 TWh/year, compared to the 38% of capacity they represent. By comparison, nuclear contributes 26% to production for 11% of capacity. Renouncing nuclear power would therefore mean depriving oneself of a quarter of the electricity produced in the EU. Replacing renewables to produce the same energy would theoretically mean adding 134% more renewable capacity, to reach 810 GW of wind and solar, which would be unmanageable for the stability of the networks. Even if it were possible, the EU could not afford to give up its dispatchable capacities fueled by natural gas, or even coal.

Fourth observation: the reduction in CO2 emissions of -31% since 2000 remains modest. The Covid crisis with a significant reduction in economic activity alone led to a reduction of -8% between 2019 and 2020, followed however by a rise of +3.5% in 2021. Crises would therefore be effective means to reduce emissions! The reduction is certainly due to the production of variable renewables, but also largely to the reduction in energy production by coal (-47%) and its replacement by natural gas (+63%) whose emissions are lower by about half. The reduction of emissions thanks to the massive installation of wind power and photovoltaic is therefore entirely theoretical, and in any case insufficient with regard to the decarbonization hopes of the Green Deal for all forms of energy.

In conclusion, wind and solar will not be able to fully decarbonize energy in the EU. They will not replace fossil and/or nuclear. Their increased presence on the networks will continue to drive capacity out of control, posing serious stability issues. This unbridled growth will increasingly degrade the performance of dispatchable sources that have remained essential, calling for more pollution [3], and also requiring more financial support, such as Capacity Remuneration Mechanism, to restore their profitability. The message ‘We are on the way to 100% decarbonizing” is clearly false advertising, welcomed by all those who benefit from it. Among these, we find both wind and solar developers as well as gas developers – often within the same companies – and transport networks that are clearly winners in the multiplication of exchanges by networks of the many distributed renewable sources [4].

Pierre Kunsch Physicist, Dr. in Sciences and Honorary Professor of the ULB

References (active links)

[1] The carbon footprint and the Green Deal

[2] Embers’ electricity data

[3] duke-energy-application-points-finger-at-solar-for-increased-pollution

[4] The transport operators building networks and promoting decarbonizing of society

Source: Pierre Kunsch Opinion Trends-Tendances Le Vif 12th June 2022