100% renewable electricity in Europe and North Africa by 2050 — from vision to reality

Options Magazine, Summer 2010: 

A new blueprint indicates that, while the vision of a Europe powered by renewable energy is technologically feasible, new policies and investment behaviors will be needed to achieve this.

Approximately 65 percent of the world’s electricity is derived from the burning of carbon dioxide–emitting fossil fuels, primarily oil and coal. While historically governments’ main concerns with respect to energy have been security of supply and affordability, climate change has created a third imperative, namely, the need for “decarbonization.” According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if the world is to avoid “dangerous” climate change, carbon dioxide emissions from the global energy system will have to fall to zero by the second half of the century. In industrialized regions such as Europe, this would mean emission reductions of at least 80 percent by 2050. Many view the complete decarbonization of electricity as the cornerstone of the transition to renewable energy.

A new report by international energy experts from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria, 100% Renewable Electricity: A 2050 Roadmap for Europe and North Africa, explores the policy- and market-based developments that, if implemented, could allow this transition to take place. A key finding of the report is that the technology exists to make a complete transition to renewable electricity at little or no additional cost to consumers and with no sacrifice in security and system reliability. Indeed, according to the study, consumers could eventually enjoy “considerable—and growing—cost savings.” Such a transition will be possible, however, only if there are new policies in place that influence investment behavior within the next ten years. Rather than focusing on a single regulatory approach, such as an international cap on emissions, the report identifies a portfolio of measures that would enable strategic investment in the necessary infrastructure and remove existing barriers to change. These policies include:

  • Harmonizing existing forms of support for renewable energy to cover power generated in one country and consumed elsewhere, such as wind power from the North Sea or solar power from North Africa, and extending the length of time that laws supporting renewable energy are in place, thus providing manufacturers of renewable power components the security necessary to scale up production capacity to meet future demand.
  • Connecting existing national power markets toward a system with a single market and grid for Europe and North Africa by 2050, via a SuperSmart Grid (SSG). An SSG is the infrastructure that would transmit renewable electricity from a variety of small and large generation sites scattered over wide areas and with the ability to manage both fluctuating supply and loads.
  • Extending the planning horizon for grid capacity expansions from the current standard of five years, so that new investments will be made based on their fit with the fully renewable SuperSmart Grid by 2050.
  • Harmonizing and improving the transparency of regulations for infrastructure siting and development across Europe and North Africa in order to make project development more predictable and thus reduce the risks to investors.

The report analyzes the difficulties that could be encountered by European countries in trying to satisfy their total energy needs using domestically produced renewables, given the constraints on land availability in Europe. It also concludes that, by working together, European and North African countries could take advantage of the Sahara Desert’s virtually unlimited sunshine and Europe’s large financial flows, to develop renewable power-generating and transmission capacity to satisfy the needs of both regions.


Regional transmission lines. This schematic map suggests the need for a network of point-to-point high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines connecting hubs of power supply and demand across Europe and the Mediterranean. It is essential to plan these at the regional scale; this will require a shift in regulation, as currently grid planning occurs almost exclusively at the national level in Europe. Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)


Different technologies for producing electricity. The figure illustrates typical current total generation costs, current installed capacities, and potential for generation cost reductions for the most common technologies, based on several data sources. The blue bars represent the range of electricity costs for new installations, as of 2009, for a variety of technologies. But these costs can and will change. The green bars indicate the total installed capacity worldwide. Source: IIASA (Data sources: IEA, US DoE, NREL)

Security of supply. On the issue of energy security the study suggests there would be “a lower level of risk” than at present. Europe currently imports little electricity, but buys most of the fuel needed to generate it (some 41, 61, 84, and 97 percent of its coal, gas, oil, and uranium, respectively) from non-EU countries, and this percentage is expected to rise to an average of nearly 75 percent over the next decades, with the majority of new imports coming from Russia—an issue of concern in view of the Russian–Ukrainian gas crises of 2006 and 2009. The potential disruption to solar energy supplies from possible terrorist activities in North Africa is considered low. Solar electricity would come from a range of geographically widely dispersed North African states, thus making it very difficult to cause any major disruption to supply.

Environmental concerns. Solar energy is clearly green, both in terms of having no direct CO2 emissions and with respect to its lifecycle carbon footprint. However, solar thermal power stations, like all other thermal plants, require cooling, and the most efficient and cost-effective means of cooling utilizes a large amount of water. Solar plants are, by necessity, located in regions of low average cloud cover, and hence arid conditions. Thus, a clear tradeoff will need to be made between cost and water usage, as the alternative dry cooling technologies slightly reduce plant efficiency, particularly when the ambient temperature is high. Managing local water issues and ensuring that solar thermal stations take account of other potential water users that contribute to sustainable development, will be a critical governance issue.

A policy roadmap. It is well known that outdated grid architecture is a barrier to improved penetration of renewable power. Less well understood is the extent to which markets themselves may need to be restructured and the different policy mechanisms harmonized, all of which takes time. A key contribution of the report is that it sets out a realistic policy “roadmap” or timeline for policy changes, establishment of market structures, attracting investment and finance, and setting up the infrastructure and planning required to make the vision a reality. The first stages of policy development, at the European level, would have to begin by 2015 to allow sufficient grid expansion by 2020, which in turn would be necessary to manage the expansion in renewable generating capacity by 2030.

Key findings of the report

  • Europe and North Africa could meet all their electricity needs from renewable sources by the middle of the century if the political will exists and if economic incentives are in place.
  • It is technically feasible to produce a pancontinental SuperSmart Grid powered by solar farms in North Africa, hydroelectric plants in Scandinavia and the European Alps, onshore and offshore wind farms in the Baltic and North Sea, marine energy, and biomass power facilities.
  • The rapid deployment of renewable energy capacity at scale will bring down the cost of low-carbon technologies, resulting in energy that is cost-competitive and can provide affordable electricity across the region.
  • Further information: 100% Renewable Electricity—A roadmap to 2050 for Europe and North Africa is co-authored by international climate and energy experts from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, IIASA, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and the European Climate Forum. The report examines the potential for powering Europe and North Africa solely by renewable electricity by 2050 and the opportunities that this transformation presents to the power sector. The study provides policymakers and business leaders with clear direction and a step-by-step approach regarding how to achieve this vision.

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Last edited: 28 August 2012

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