I've been reading “Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low Carbon Europe.” It sounds catchy, but at second glance, seemingly unattainable. Were the authors serious when they put the words practical and prosperous in the same title as low carbon? Having visited a carbon-capture demonstration site in Wisconsin that seemed to be a money pit of activity while capturing only 3% of the carbon, I have to fight innate skepticism.

Still, What If ….

So I decided to take the plunge and read the document that runs a hundred pages. Okay, so I went for the 20-page summary and followed up by scanning the graphics and skimming the text in the larger report.

The document looks at options Europe can take to meet an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. To reach this overall target, 95% of electric power is targeted to come from decarbonized sources. One thing is certain, the transition to a low carbon future requires that we rethink every decision on how energy is generated, moved and consumed; otherwise, we will revisit the outcomes of the Kyoto Protocol, which was long on commitments and short on executable strategies.

In July 2009, the leaders of the European Union and the G8 announced an objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Talk about an aggressive target! Undaunted and in support of this goal, the European Climate Foundation (ECF) performed a study to establish a fact base and to evaluate implications for European industry, focusing on the electricity sector.

I wasn't familiar with the European Climate Foundation, so I did a little digging. The ECF isn't a lobbying organization or a think tank, instead, it's a charity funded to secure policy change. ECF is funded by private philanthropic organizations, including The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, so it has power and money behind it.

To perform the study, ECF hired some really smart people from KEMA, McKinsey and the Imperial College London to name a few. And to assure that the conclusions would be achievable and have broad support, major energy sector companies including RWE, E.ON, TenneT, Vattenfall, National Grid and Terna were called upon to provide input and insight. Environmental organizations including WWF, German Watch and E3G were also engaged.

ECF also sought feedback throughout the process from a core “reflection group” that included Acciona, EdP, Enel, Iberdrola, Shell, Siemens, Terna and Vestas. I'm impressed with the heavyweight companies the ECF called upon to help develop their roadmaps.

Early on, the decision was made that low carbon pathways would not depend on future technology breakthroughs or require international carbon offsets. But significant investment is required. So what might a decarbonized 2050 look like?

What to Expect if Roadmap 2050 is Adapted

Investments across the continent will result in up to:

  • 136 GW of additional transmission capacity
  • 5,000 sq km of solar panels
  • 100,000 new and replacement wind turbines
  • 200 million electric and fuel cell vehicles
  • 100 million heat pumps for buildings or city districts.

Three different decarbonized power sector pathways are proposed that differ mostly in the range of low/zero carbon supply technologies selected. These sources include hydro, fossil fuel plus carbon-capture sequestration and nuclear. Energy storage systems are included in the mix to provide additional flexibility. Interestingly, the authors also see a future for hydrogen-fueled plants and fuel cells as hydrogen production is ramped up. Renewable sources include wind, solar, biomass and geothermal.

We know that most renewable sources result in higher levels of intermittency, but this intermittency can be managed through a combination of significantly expanding the European transmission grid, building significant backup generation and applying demand solutions. Roughly speaking, for every 7 MW to 8 MW of intermittent capacity (wind and solar photovoltaic), about one additional megawatt of backup capacity is required. This means that 190 GW to 270 GW of backup generation capacity will be required in 2050 to maintain the reliability of the electricity system, of which 120 GW is already in the baseline.

The three pathways recommended are designed to be robust, but tradeoffs are available whether adding additional transmission capacity, adding more backup generation, adding bulk storage or incurring higher operating costs to balance the power system.

Decarbonized electricity consumption in 2050 is predicted to be about 4900 TWh per year, which is approximately 40% higher than the level of decarbonized generation available today. Roadmap 2050 assumes that “business as usual” growth in demand is avoided almost completely by applying aggressive energy-efficiency measures.

Specifically, the study calls for energy-efficiency improvements up to 2% per year. The study also evaluates the role of smart grid measures in reducing the need for transmission and backup services by allowing load to participate in balancing the system. In particular, the study addresses the impact of electric vehicles and heat pumps on the system, although vehicle-to-grid energy storage has not been assumed.

Each of the three proposed pathways requires a shift in the approach to planning and operation of transmission systems. Electricity demand is no longer to be fixed and unchangeable. Smart grid investments enable demand to be more flexible and responsive to the available supply of energy. This will significantly reduce system costs and implementation challenges. Inter-regional transmission will move from a trading and reserve-sharing role to one that enables significant energy exchanges between regions throughout the year, enabling wider sharing of generation.

Up to 136 GW of additional transmission capacity could be added to the 34 GW of existing transmission capacity although this number could be reduced as distributed resources are added. Several thousand kilometers of new inter-regional transmission infrastructure will be required to guarantee reliability in each of three proposed pathways. This is a factor of three increase from today's level of inter-regional transmission capacity.

In some corridors the expansion will be even greater. From Iberia to France capacity would be increased from 1 GW to a range from 15 GW to 40 GW depending on the pathway selected. From the United Kingdom/Ireland to France transmission capacity would be increased from the current 2 GW to 14 GW or more. Total grid investments required would be around 10% of generation investments.

Resilience will be required to overcome inevitable setbacks, including initiatives to change public attitudes regarding the construction of large-scale overhead transmission infrastructure. We possess the skills, the technology, the capital and the industrial wherewithal transform the electric energy sector, but the policies and regulations required to mobilize those vast resources to the extent required do not yet exist.

The unit cost of electricity over the 2010-2050 period is expected to be 10% to 15% higher than in the baseline (excluding carbon pricing). However, due to greater energy efficiency and a shift from oil and gas to decarbonized electricity in the transport and building sectors, the overall cost of energy is predicted to decline by 20% to 30% in the decarbonized pathways. Of course, the power sector will require additional capital to finance the investments in low/zero carbon generation, in additional transmission and in backup generation. But the per-customer cost of a decarbonized Europe predicted in this study is not nearly as high as I expected. Even with pessimistic assumptions, the increased cost per household is predicted to be below 300 euros per year.

Costs to a Low Carbon Future

New jobs are created to implement energy-efficiency measures and to develop and install new technologies. Sectors that benefit most are construction and mechanical engineering.

What About Jobs?

The total number of these new jobs by 2020 could range from 300,000 to 500,000. While at the same time, about 250,000 jobs could be lost in the fossil fuel industry.

The authors make a valid point that Europe is better off by taking action now as scale effects will be realized when large-scale investments in renewable technologies are made. Make no mistake, the next generation is vitally interested in the future of energy and in reducing the global carbon footprint. But do they have the fortitude to embrace the steps required within the next 10 to 15 years to reap the benefits of a carbon-reduced future in 2050? The next generation's answer to this question will determine the course of Europe's energy future.

Recently, two European transmission advocacy groups have been formed, Friends of the Supergrid and Transgreen.

Transmission Advocacy Groups

Looking first at Friends of the Supergrid, this advocacy group was launched in March 2010 to promote the construction of a pan-European high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) offshore supergrid. Founding members include Mainstream Renewable Power, 3E, Areva T&D, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Prysmian and Siemens. This supergrid will be needed to carry marine wind power generated in the northern European seas to the load centers of Europe. For example, the U.K. government recently announced the development of up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2020. The Friends of the Supergrid members see the need to integrate this huge resource into Europe to enable the open trade of electricity between member states. Members are encouraging policy makers to support the creation of the supergrid to change how electricity is to be generated, transmitted and consumed going forward. The supergrid will involve the creation of super nodes to collect, integrate and route renewable energy to the best available markets and will act as a trading tool to enhance the security of supply for all countries in the European Union.

Transgreen was launched to promote the development of a pan-European offshore supergrid to carry energy from renewable sources in southern and eastern areas of the Mediterranean to the load centers in Europe. The partnership among 12 companies promotes the development of a trans-Mediterranean grid to transport 5 GW of green energy, mainly solar. The initiative involves Prysmian, Abengoa, Alstom, Areva, Atos, Origin, CDC Infrastructure, EDF, Nexans, Red Electrica de Espana, RTE and Siemens e Veolia. Transgreen was established for an initial period of three years, with the intent to support the development of interconnection infrastructures as well as high- and extra-high-voltage DC submarine cable systems.