Building the energy system of the future

The recent surge in clean energy can help Europe overcome its addiction to fossil fuels.

But Mauro Anastasio reveals there may be a catch.

For decades, the idea of achieving 100% renewable energy was largely seen as wishful thinking. Now, thanks to the increasing uptake of wind and solar across the world, combined with falling prices and progress on energy storage, not only does a truly green energy system look possible – it also makes economic sense.

The renewable way

The share of renewable energy has more than doubled in the last decade, rising from 8.5% of the EU’s energy consumption in 2004 to 17.5% in 2017 and bringing Europe closer to meet its 2020 target of 20%.

“It may seem like slow progress but given the continued drop in supply costs and increasing efficiency of our homes, industry and products, it’s realistic to say renewables can soon overtake fossil fuels,” said Roland Joebstl, an energy expert with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

In fact, clean energy has already taken on the lion’s share of electricity production. In the first half of 2019, and for the second consecutive year, European renewables produced more power than gas, coal lignite, oil and peat combined. In March 2019, Portugal met 100% of its energy needs thanks to hydro and windpower alone.

But despite the urgency and positive trends seen so far, many EU countries still heavily rely on fossil fuels. While the share of energy from renewable sources was over 50% in Sweden in 2017, it was still 10% or less in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK.

Source: Eurostat 2019

“What some countries are still lacking is not wind or sun, but investments in energy networks and infrastructure that can transport and store high quantities of renewable energy,” said Jonathan Bonadio, also an energy expert at the EEB. “We must invest in modern interconnection and local grids now if we want to boost renewable energy exponentially in the next decades” he added.

Gas or not

But that’s easier said than done. In recent years, the industry has successfully convinced policy makers to divert public funds to fossil fuel infrastructure such as new gas pipelines. Brussels-based lobby groups have reportedly spent over €100m in 2016 to push the myth that gas is clean.

Steel pipes in Northern Greece, built as part of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. Source: TAP-AG

A recent letter by a group of NGOs argued that “investing in continued gas use now does nothing more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It’s a waste of public money, and it will just create incentives to produce more gas at a time when we need to focus on renewables, they said in a recent public consultation.

The European Commission also seems to be questioning the fossil fuel industry’s claims. Its long-term energy strategy projects around 20% decrease in fossil gas demand by 2030, which could go down by almost 90% by 2050.

However, the phase out of gas and other fossil fuels will depend on the designs we choose for the energy system of the future, according to NGOs. “The investments we make today will define whether Europe can avoid the worst of the climate crisis while also creating a fairer energy system,” Bonadio said.

Long-story short, we are still unsure how clean the energy that powers our daily lives will be. But as we design the energy system of the future, policy experts warn us that the investments we make today will define whether Europe can avoid the worst of the climate crisis.

This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of META, the EEB’s magazine. eeb receive a printed copy four times a year. A PDF version is available to download.