A favourite pastime in Brussels these days is drawing up ‘roadmaps’ for Europe’s low-carbon electricity future. Electricity companies have their versions, environmental campaign groups have come up with several variants – all ahead of the European Commission, which is due to unveil its roadmap in the middle of 2011. Although these roadmaps have a common destination – a carbon-free electricity system by 2050 – and take mostly the same route – renewables up, coal down – they also underscore that Europe’s energy mix will be driven by political choices, not merely technocratic decisions.
Judged from the perspective of the planet, the most demanding plans come (unsurprisingly) from environmental campaign groups. Friends of the Earth bases its plan on a 90% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions across the economy by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), Greenpeace on a 95% emissions reduction – the upper end of scientists’ recommendations for avoiding dangerous climate change. Both groups want a power sector all, or nearly all, sourced from renewable energy, with no carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as the phasing out of nuclear power (by 2050 for Friends of the Earth and by 2040 for Greenpeace). Friends of the Earth wants no biofuel at all, while Greenpeace is content to see some biofuel, as long as it is limited to “sustainable” wastes and agricultural residues, not crops that are also grown for food.
In contrast, electricity companies base their plans on a greenhouse-gas-reduction goal of 75% by 2050. This is less than the 80%-95% reduction that scientists (and EU leaders) argue is necessary, although the electricity companies have concluded that the power sector will have to be “virtually carbon free” even to reach the 75% goal.
The “Power Choices” study by Eurelectric, the pan-European organisation of electricity companies, envisages that nuclear power will increase, although its overall share of the energy mix will fall slightly (from 31% in 2005 to 28% in 2050). Renewables will account for 40% of Europe’s energy supply, mostly from wind power (off- and onshore), hydropower and biomass. In the medium term, until 2025, demand for gas will increase, as the easiest way to plug the gap before more carbon-free energy comes on stream. (Interestingly, these assumptions on nuclear and gas are shared by Commission statisticians in their work on energy trends to 2030.)
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The European Climate Foundation (ECF) has examined scenarios where Europe gets 40%, 60%, 80% or 100% of its energy from renewables by 2050. This highlights the stark choice between renewables and nuclear. Their 40% renewables scenario means that more than 100 nuclear plants would need to be built by 2040. Taking the average of each scenario, the ECF roadmap envisages that by 2050, 5,000 square kilometres of solar panels and 100,000 wind turbines will have to be installed or replaced, and up to 200 million electric vehicles will have to be on Europe’s roads.
The studies emphasise different selling points and problems. The Greenpeace study emphasises the likely payback in cheaper energy. Greenpeace’s 98% renewable electricity scenario would cost €3.8 billion over 2010-50, but would yield savings of €2.6bn over the same period because renewable energy inputs – wind, sun and waste – are free.
Both Greenpeace and the ECF play up the potential windfall of green jobs. The ECF study estimates that new technology could create between 300,000 and 500,000 jobs, although 250,000 jobs could go in the fossil-fuel industry.
Greenpeace makes bigger predictions; betting on 940,000 jobs in renewable energy by 2020. The ECF study strikes a more pessimistic note about public support and argues that opposition to overhead power lines, nuclear plants, carbon dioxide storage and wind farms will be a major impediment to a new energy system and will increase costs.
Eurelectric also analyses the uncertainties and suggests that even the best-planned journeys can lead to unexpected detours and delays. Among its ‘what-ifs’ are the potential impact of an EU member state, such as Belgium or Germany, reversing its planned phase-out of nuclear power, or delays in realising CCS and offshore wind technology because of slow planning rules and local opposition.