European shadows

 By Davide Tabarelli

From the article “European shadows” by We World Energy magazine n.41

Brussels’ plan regarding CO2 emissions reduction, could conflict with the need to maintain sufficient electrical power to avoid power cuts…

On October 20, 2018, a typically cold, wet autumn Saturday morning in Belgium, at the Liège Palais des Congrès, site of the 1905 Expo, the École Polytechnique awarded degrees to around 100 students. Along with their families and 30 professors from various disciplines, the graduating students listened in silence to the rector’s speech. “Today, you become engineers and your task is clear: to solve the world’s problems, such as avoiding the upcoming blackout in the national grid.” These words captured widespread  concerns in Belgium, the heart of Europe, where the closure of five of its seven nuclear power stations for maintenance has put the entire electrical system under stress, raising the specter of a blackout. This warning could be a harbinger of things to come for the rest of Europe, where the plan to free systems from fossil fuels and nuclear power will require electricity from renewable sources of unprecedented, and perhaps unrealistic, proportions. This plan would also put network safety at risk. The limit of renewable sources, especially wind and solar, is their intermittent nature, only being available when the wind blows or the sun shines, not at night and perhaps not even when it is cold. More detrimental is their low energy density, i.e., to produce the same amount of energy from one kilogram of fossil fuels, they require huge areas of land, which would therefore also require very expensive and inconvenient electricity transmission systems. The ongoing transition in Europe, the largest in terms of global commitment, is into renewables, which do not emit CO2, and which can be exploited for energy production. Sources for heating or which support transportation experience greater difficulty, as they consist of polluting biofuels such as wood, which produces smoke and particulates, and requires intensive exploitation of woodlands or agricultural land.

Terranova Project, the largest solar park in the Benelux (Antalexion, Wikimedia)

European ambitions for the development of renewables

On November 28, 2018, the European Commission relaunched its environmental policy with a new objective for 2050 of a carbon-neutral Europe, i.e., one with a balance between emissions and zero absorptions. This is not new—it simply confirms a decision made in the 2011 Roadmap, which also set the objective of CO2 emissions by 2050 between 80 and 95 percent of 1990 levels. A few months earlier, in mid-June 2018, the European Commission had also agreed to increase the use of renewables to 20 percent by 2020 and to 32 percent by 2030, in comparison to the current 17 percent. This percentage represents the ratio between renewable energy production and gross domestic consumption, including transportation and heating, although the figures in electricity production will be are just as ambitious, despite not yet having been set. The proportion of these is due to increase from the current 30 percent to over 60 percent in 2030. These are amazing goals, as dizzying as they are demanding, far away enough over time to spare the politicians from the need to answer for any failures, as they will have already been retired for some time. The effect is also to distract from a reality that ignores some of the fundamentals, such as the fact that the electricity networks represent the nervous system of Europe, that the prediction of growth in intermittent renewables poses immense technical challenges, and that the transition will come at a heavy price, with currently high costs that continue to increase.While Brussels is celebrating sustainability with new promises, in Paris, President Macron has problems putting into practice his promises from a few years ago. The French people’s reaction to the January 2019 announcement of an increase in excise duties on diesel has been incredibly negative, despite the goal of the increase being to penalize traditional cars in favor of electric ones. The gilets jaunes, named after the yellow high-vis jackets they wear, are contesting the energy transition policy handed down by the rich elite, a policy that raises energy prices affecting the wallets of the lowest-income population groups. We have to wonder what will happen in the coming years when electricity bills start to rise to cover the costs of renewables. To ease the transition, Macron announced on November 27, 2018 that the goal to reduce the use of nuclear power to 50 percent, from the current 76 percent has now been put back to 2035, no longer 2025 as promised by his predecessor Hollande.

The Gilets Jaunes at the Champs Elysees, Paris (Reuters)

More important than the street protests, where the nuclear question is not being raised, is France’s inability in seven years to give up such a large proportion of nuclear energy production, currently over 100 billion kilowatt-hours. Such a cut would lead to stability problems in the national grid, not only in France but also in neighboring countries, starting in Italy, sadly the country most dependent on electricity imports from abroad, especially nuclear energy from France. Also on November 28, 2018, the organization that includes the European electricity transportation network operators published its half-yearly report on the adequacy of the European electrical system. The report stressed that in the event of a severe cold snap, a normal occurrence in winter, Belgium, France and northern Italy would be at risk. What “at risk” means is unclear. In the best-case scenario, when the cold comes, as it did with the Beast from the East in February 2018, electricity prices would surge upward. When it is cold in many countries, but especially in France, more electricity is used, because heating, especially additional heating, uses electrical resistance. In Italy, more simply, the result is greater consumption because many people there use electric heaters.

Buran's frost brought snow to Rome in 2018 (Reuters)

More demand for energy, higher price instability

To cover the higher demand, more power stations are required. These would be less efficient because they use precious diesel, which would have to be imported from eastern to western Europe, thereby incurring greater transportation costs. Other complications could also come into play, such as the fact that colder temperatures usually bring high pressure. If the weather is good, the wind drops and so does the electricity production of wind turbines in northern Europe. Also when there is good weather, rainfall can be low, resulting in a decrease in hydroelectricity plant production and leading to additional demand for energy produced by more expensive marginal power stations. These are not exceptional events—they occurred frequently in the last two years. However, when there was plenty of traditional production there were few consequences, whereas now, with more renewables and lower capacity, only a few drawbacks are enough to create difficulties. Proof of this lies in the fact that wholesale electricity prices in Europe have been steadily growing for the last three years in the countries that are most committed to reforms, especially France. In late November 2018, French prices were close to EUR 70 per megawatt-hour, about EUR 30 higher than usual levels, and this resulted in a higher average cost of electrical generation for the French grid. In the last three years, closures for maintenance were needed in early winter in the large nuclear power plants, with resultant price increases. In Germany, after three years of average values close to EUR 30/MWh, 2018 prices remained steadily above EUR 40, frequently peaking at EUR 60. In the United Kingdom, the European country that has spent the most in recent years on coal-fired power station closures, prices have stabilized at EUR 60 per megawatt-hour, compared to previous levels, when most production was from coal, of below EUR 40. Meanwhile, in Berlin the committee tasked with discussing what to do with the more than 150 coal-fired power stations producing almost 40 percent of German electricity has continued to postpone their reporting date. The conviction is ever stronger that, just as France cannot give up nuclear power, Germany will not be able to get rid of coal. This is yet more valid if it is taken into consideration that Angela Merkel is holding onto the commitment to exit from nuclear by 2022, the impact of which is less significant than in France, but still worth 80 billion kilowatt-hours, 12 percent of total. The closure of these power stations, probably compensated for by increased wind capacity, will worsen price instability.

The Gustav Knepper coal-fired power station in Germany (Arnoldius, Wikimedia)

Consequences of the risk of blackouts in Europe

 All in all, if it were only a price problem, although annoying, it would not be particularly serious. The critical points mentioned by electricity transporters could take on much more serious connotations, damage that simple economic calculations cannot clearly express. This worst-case scenario is non-delivery of electricity, a technical expression for blackouts that masks a very serious occurrence because of the vital nature of electricity for end customers, whether industry or private citizens. In other words, blackout, including due to superstitions, should not be mentioned in the European electricity industry, struggling as it is with this most resounding energy transition.  This extreme occurrence, fortunately increasingly rare, instantaneously takes people, factories and services back to the pre-industrial age, with no light, lifts, air conditioning, television, mobile phone or car recharging. Attempts at putting a price on such non-delivery of electricity indicate values of EUR 3,000 and over per megawatt-hour, at least 500 times the current market price. This level can easily be understood by any ordinary citizen if they take into account what they would be willing to pay to restart a lift if they were stuck due to a power cut. EUR 3,000 per megawatt-hour, equivalent to EUR 3 per kilowatt-hour is enough to keep the lift in a six-story building going for one day, consuming no more than 1 kilowatt-hour. Italian consumers are better aware of the importance of electricity supply after they witnessed one of the worst blackouts in world history on September 28, 2003. From 3 a.m. Saturday night into Sunday morning, no part of Italy had any electricity apart from Sardinia and Elba—about 56 million users were cut off. Little by little, the power came back on, first in the north, from 8 a.m., then gradually down throughout the country, with the lights in Sicily only coming back on at 10 p.m., 18 hours later.

A dawn without electricity in Rome after the blackout of 28 September 2003 (Reuters)

A similar event, if a lesser one, occurred in 2006, between Germany and France. Since then, massive investment has been plowed into national grids. Despite the increase in intermittent renewables, such dramatic events have not recurred. However, dips in electricity demand, due to the economic crisis, are just as significant. More serious issues have arisen over recent years. Not by chance, the slight recovery in consumption over the last three years has been accompanied by more frequent tensions due to rising prices. The future is a concern, partly because demand should recover, both due to a more sustained pace of economic expansion and due to greater penetration of electricity into final consumption, one of the fundamental objectives of supporters of the energy transition. A greater challenge will be the fact that the current capacity of wind production in Europe will need to double or more—and solar power will need to increase threefold or more—to reach a level close to 40 percent of overall electricity production, compared to the current 15 percent. It has taken 60 years to build the current European electrical system, consisting mainly of power stations meeting the old large-scale requirements so as to achieve economies of scale, and downstream cascade transportation and distribution to the end customers, to gain greater control over the system. The idea that the system could be completely revolutionized in favor of intermittent renewables in only 12 years is not ambitious. It is a dream.

READ MORE: Europe’s new energy mix by Amanda Saint

about the author
Davide Tabarelli