Europe’s new energy mix

 By Amanda Saint

The UK government has recently announced plans to phase out coal completely by 2025 and recently Denmark harnessed 116% of its daily energy needs from wind turbines in just a few hours. As the UK plans to replace coal with nuclear and gas and other EU countries such as Germany focus on going completely renewable, what does the future mix of energy realistically look like in a continent with huge and growing power demands…?

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The energy landscape in Europe has been undergoing a gradual transformation over the past couple of decades. In the wake of the COP21 climate summit and the pledges that the continent’s governments made to tackle climate change, what does the future mix of energy realistically look like in a continent with huge and growing power demands?

The latest figures available show that in 2014, the EU member states imported just over half of the energy (53.4%) they used. In the same year, the share of energy from renewable sources in the gross final consumption of energy reached 16.0%, which is a 7.5% increase since records of renewables began in 2004. So there is no doubt that steps are being made towards making the continent more sustainable while ensuring energy security.

Energy goals

There are strategy documents in place with goals for 2020, 2030 and 2050, which show a phased plan for all member states to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% (when compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. The first goal of reducing them by 20% by 2020 is, most industry analysts and professionals believe, unlikely to be achieved. The UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change released a report recently, stating that is has a significant shortfall in its “carbon budget.”

Nevertheless, in its most recent report on progress “EU Energy, Transport and GHG Emissions Trends to 2050: Reference Scenario 2013” the European Commission (EC) still says everything is on track. The aim is to still cut harmful emissions by another 60%, and presumably by the additional amount we missed the 2020 goal by, in the following three decades. The plan is to do this through four main routes to sustainability: energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.

But how are these documents and long-term goals translating into actions in the individual countries that make up the Union?

Fuel mix of member states (source: IEA)

The big energy consumers

The EU’s five biggest energy consumers are the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. The three biggest energy consumption categories for them all are transport, households and industry.

In the UK, the government did recently pledge to phase out coal completely by 2025. But shortly after it also drastically cut funding for renewable energies, with biomass and solar being particularly hard hit. So what’s the focus for the current administration to ensure energy security? Nuclear and gas. It had better hope that the two combined can really deliver some big greenhouse gas emissions savings, because it also recently scrapped the zero carbon buildings policy, meaning new residential, commercial and public sector construction projects no longer have to meet stringent energy efficiency regulations.

In contrast, Germany has been moving rapidly towards its 2050 goal of generating energy for the grid through completely renewable resources. One day last summer, the country broke its previous record when 78% of its electricity was provided from wind and solar power.

France’s energy currently comes predominantly from nuclear (75%). In 2015, preliminary figures from Red Electrica, Spain’s national electricity transmission organization, show that it generated 47.7% of its energy from hydro, solar, wind and thermal power. Italy’s data hasn’t been updated since 2009 results.

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The EU energy plan

The continent is heavily dependent on imports of crude oil and gas, which are still the biggest providers by far of heat, light, and transport fuel for the majority of member states. Gas alone makes up a quarter of the continent’s energy supplies and it has to import 66% of its current needs.

Recognizing that any prolonged interruption to supply would have a pretty devastating effect on the Union’s economy, the Commission has just released detailed new rules to secure gas supplies if relations with one of its biggest suppliers, Russia, break down again. These essentially lay out guidelines stating that Union members have to complete stress tests to identify possible areas of weakness and that they would have to support each other and provide supplies to neighboring countries to help support essential services in the case of a breakdown.

But in the long term, the strategies laid out until 2050 show that the overarching focus for the Commission’s energy planners is to change the energy landscape from its current form into one that is greener, more sustainable, and less reliant on fossil fuels. Denmark recently harnessed 116% of its daily energy needs from wind turbines in just a few hours, which shows that if it keeps focusing on ways to harness wind, water and solar, Europe can indeed change its energy landscape.

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.