Last week, the IEA’s executive director said at the Global Wind Summit that Europe is likely to rely on wind as its primary source of energy by 2027 — and its role in the grid will only increase from then on.
The European Union today draws roughly one-quarter of its energy from nuclear generators. Coal and gas supply a further 20% (one-fifth), with wind generating around 10% of the energy EU countries guzzle up. By 2027, however, the last shall be first, says the IEA.
According to its forecasts (document at the end of the article), wind will be the main source of energy for the EU by that year, supplying roughly 23% of total power. Other renewables — such as biomass plants — will contribute around 20%, gas a further 20%, nuclear will fall just shy of 20%, while coal will decline to just about 10%. Solar energy will account for about 6% to 7% in the IEA’s forecasts.
The European Union is already a global leader in wind energy, especially in the offshore wind department. Europe boasts a lot of coasts, and offshore turbines can be larger than their land-locked counterparts. They’re also usually spun by stronger and more consistent winds than the latter. Last year, the EU had 15,780 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind capacity; to reach the IEA’s forecasts, that capacity will have to increase to roughly 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, which is quite sizeable.
However, and this is a big “however”, the most exciting thing about the IEA’s forecasts isn’t the wind generation itself — it’s what it would entail. Should their prediction come to pass, the IEA is confident that “ongoing cost declines” associated with wind-generated power would “open prospects for the production of ‘green’ hydrogen” — and green hydrogen has the ability to spark a wide-reaching energy revolution.
Now, the thing about hydrogen today is that it’s mostly produced via natural gas reforming and, because of emissions associated with the production process, it is a net contributor of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One other way you can produce hydrogen, however, is through water electrolysis — the use of an electrical current to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components.
In the context of abundant energy supplied by wind farms, all that (green) power could be diverted to electrolysis and jump-start a hydrogen revolution. The drain on the grid could be mitigated by mostly running this process at night when demand for electricity is typically low. An ample and steady supply of green-generated, no-emission fuel could finally help ‘greenify’ a sector that’s traditionally resisted attempts to de-couple from fossil fuels: transportation.
“Decarbonization efforts are disproportionally focused on the power sector […] and not enough on heat and transport,” the IEA’s slides said. The agency noted that the electricity sector in the EU “accounts for just 20 percent of energy use.”
The transport sector has been difficult to decarbonize because it’s highly decentralized, and any real effort would have to draw heavily on subsidies and tax breaks (for which political will is very often lacking). But Europe does seem intent on pursuing decarbonization — Germany recently put the world’s first hydrogen-powered train in service. Green hydrogen should definitely help in that regard.
Gone with the wind
With great renewable generation also comes great responsibility to maintain grid integrity, however. There are concerns that solar and wind energy, being more fickle than fossil fuels, could impart significant instability to the grid after prolonged periods without wind or sun. In order to determine how much effort each country needs to put into protecting their grids, the IEA splits them up into distinct ‘phases’ — each depending on how much wind and solar energy goes into a country’s grid makeup.
Phase 1 and Phase 2 countries have so little wind or solar power that they don’t really need to take any precautionary steps. The US, according to the IEA, is currently a Phase 2 country.
Phase 3 countries need to start making significant investments in complementary tech and infrastructure — such as battery storage, flexible power plants, demand management solutions, and advanced grid technology. The UK, Italy, and Germany are examples of Phase 3 countries.
Topping off the chart, Phase 4 countries (like Ireland and Denmark) rely so heavily on solar and wind energy that maintaining grid stability becomes both very challenging and very important. Such countries need to deploy “advanced technologies to ensure grid reliability,” the IEA says.
“As shares of variable renewables rise, more flexible power systems and appropriate market design will be needed for reliable and cost-effective system integration,” the agency writes.
Needless to say, should the EU really draw primarily on renewables by 2027, it will have to invest heavily in such technology and safety systems. GreenTechMedia, however, notes that it’s unclear whether the IEA’s forecast will stay true should Britain actually exit from the European Union. The United Kingdom is currently one of the EU’s major contributors to offshore wind numbers.