Decarbonising the power sector: Past achievements and future constraints

Author: Thomas Sattich

In October 2009 European heads of state and government agreed on ambitious long-term climate policy objectives in order to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and to ensure the European Union (EU) plays its part in limiting global temperature increases to 2°C. Moreover, European policy makers decided to bring the European Union on a demanding decarbonisation path, with the objective to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by between 80 and 95 per cent by 2050 (Commission 2011b), as compared to 1990 levels.

Past achievements…

This decarbonisation agenda implies a major and swift transformation of Europe’s energy sector towards the large scale use of renewables. Different reference values indicate that the mix of energy carriers which supplies industry, transport and households with the necessary fuels, is indeed in transition from carbon-based towards renewable and carbon-neutral energy carriers (see Fig. 1). Greenhouse gas emission intensity of the EU’s energy system is following this development and fell of about 9 per cent over the last decade (EUROSTAT data). The European decarbonisation agenda hence shows first successful results.

Fig. 1: Europe’s energy transition in a nutshell


Greenhouse gas emissions intensity EU-27
Fig 2: Greenhouse gas emissions intensity EU-27

The power sector plays a fundamental role in this context: It represents about 37 per cent of the total CO2 emissions in Europe (2012), and is believed to be one of the sectors where the transformation could take place in the fastest and most economical way (Roques 2014:82). As a matter of fact, the contribution of electricity produced from renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources to electricity consumption grew of about 70 per cent over the last decade, with the result that renewables today already account for about 20 per cent of electricity generation (EUROSTAT data). And with many indicators suggesting stronger electrification across the end-use in industry, transport and buildings (Sugiyama 2012), the sector’s contribution for decarbonisation is likely to grow.

…and future constraints

Thus, a cursory glance at the European power system suggests on-going and successful decarbonisation. Should this trend continue, renewables will soon cover a significant share of Europe’s energy mix and deliver a main part of the energy supply necessary for daily life and business (Commission 2011c:5). These trends have, however, to be treated with great caution. In fact, a deeper analysis shows that the transition of Europe’s power system towards decarbonisation is about to enter a new and crucial phase, in which the rapid growth of renewables and the relative decline of conventional energy sources will meet serious constraints (Commission 2013a:2).

Behind this assumption stands the fact that today’s power system is still largely defined by conventional plants, with a technical and economic environment adapted to their needs: Interconnected by the power grid, these plants operate as interacting components in integrated power pools where the different generation units dispatch their power output to the momentary load . The technical features of some renewables (partly) disturb these technological and economical interactions (Schaber, Steinke & Hamacher 2012:123). Decarbonisation of the power sector therefore is more than a mere replacement of old power generation units with new, carbon-neutral ones, but requires the reorganisation of the environment in which renewables operate (see e.g. Schaber et al. 2012).

Europe’s energy transition and the power grid

Put differently: The integration and operation of renewables in the existing power pools is amongst the most important constraints for further decarbonisation of the European power sector. Power grids play a fundamental role in this context, as they are the prerequisite for flexible, interactive operation of power plants, the efficient allocation of generation units over a given territory, and the interconnection with consumption and storage centres. Given the technical features of some forms of RES power generation, a dense power transmission infrastructure, smart grids, and intelligent systems to predict RES loads are required for the operation of renewables (Capros et al. 2012:96).

According to the large majority of studies, the state of today’s power transmission infrastructure does, however, rather hamper large scale integration of RES (see for example Tröster, Kuwahata & Ackermann 2011). But renewables still represent a relatively small number of power generation units in the European system; the pressure to adapt existing power pools to their technical and economic requirements is therefore still limited. A successful decarbonisation of Europe’s power system will, however, lead to massive increase of renewables and thus strongly amplify the need for adaptations of the grid infrastructure to their technical specifications.

But the pressure that RES power generation puts on established power pools varies with the specific type of plant; specific measures to upgrade the grid will therefore differ from region to region. This poses several questions of technical, economic and political nature: How are policy developments in the EU responding to such challenges? What is needed in terms of infrastructure upgrades? How integrated do the EU’s electricity grids need to become? What sort of drivers and barriers are in place? Can infrastructure development keep pace with requirements under decarbonisation?

In order to evaluate the impact of European policy to upgrade the power grid to the needs of a decarbonised power system, and whether EU policy is sufficient and consistent enough to achieve decarbonisation by 2050, the following posts examine the complex relationship between renewables and the grid infrastructure, and the broader context of existing EU policy. In order to localise (potential) gaps in the European approach to grid development, a more detailed look on the respective EU programmes is necessary. Potential synergies, conflicts and alternatives in grid planning are also discussed.

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