It’s doable, but it will require massive investments in wind, solar, CO2 capture and power grids.
The road to zero carbon
If Europe is to seriously fight climate change, its electricity production should be carbonfree by 2050. The European Commission’s Roadmap 2050 (1) envisions a huge increase in electricity from renewable sources: wind and hydroelectric in the north, solar in the south, plus substantial nuclear power. To become carbon-neutral, gas plants will have to be fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques.
Except for hydro and geothermal electricity, renewable sources are intermittent : they depend on the availability of sunshine and wind. Their capacity factor (the amount of electricity actually produced compared to the installed capacity) is only 10–20 per cent – the equivalent of 2–5 hours per day, compared to 20 hours for nuclear.
Issues with the grid
A huge amount of electricity will have to be transported across Europe: from south to north in the summer, in the opposite direction in winter. This will require a quadrupling of the total capacity of power lines from 34 GW now to 127 GW in 2050.
(1) Roadmap 2050 was produced for The European Commission in 2010, before Fukushima and Germany and Italy’s decisions to abandon nuclear power. These numbers correspond to a scenario in which 80 per cent of electricity comes from renewable resources. (Roadmap 2050 also developed scenarios for 60 per cent and 40 per cent).
Sources: 2014 country factsheets – EU28 member states – period 1990-2012, EC DG energy (2014); Roadmap 2050: a practical guide to a prosperous, low-carbon Europe, European Climate Foundation (2010); Worldwide electricity production from renewable energy sources – Norway; Observatoire des énergies renouvelables (2013); Schweizerische Gesamtenergiestatistik 2013, Swiss Federal Office of Energy (2014)
Journalists: Daniel Saraga and Olivier Gschwend
Graphic design : Onlab for largenetwork