Countries are making great efforts to increase their installations of intermittent renewable energy – wind and solar. The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions, gradually eliminate dependence on fossil fuels (which in most countries are largely imported, and in any case will be depleted in time) and provide electricity at affordable rates.
How well have these goals been met?
A 34-page study published by the French association Sauvons le Climat looks at the electricity production of 15 European countries over 15 years and answers: not very well!
But renewable energies emit little CO2 per kWh produced. So why do the CO2 emissions of these countries increase as the fraction of intermittent renewable energy (iREN) in their electrical mix goes up?
What follows is a translation of the Summary and part of the Conclusion of this paper. To see the original in French, click here.
Wind and solar electricity, CO2 emissions, and electricity prices for households in Western Europe
By Bernard DURAND, former director of the Geology-Geochemistry Division of IFPEN and former president of the Scientific Committee of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers.
Over the past 15 years, most European countries have been trying to increase the share of intermittent renewable energy (IREN), mainly wind and solar photovoltaic, in their electricity production. The official reasons are to reduce CO2 emissions substantially and to bolster their energy independence.
A study of a group of 15 countries in western Europe, roughly homogeneous sociologically, technologically and economically, shows that the results of this policy are not good:
– CO2 emissions from electric power generation during this period have decreased more due to the gradual replacement of coal-fired power plants by combined-cycle gas-fired plants, than by IREN. In fact, the only countries with low emissions are those whose electrical mix is now mainly based on hydraulics and / or nuclear power. These countries did not need IREN to lower their emissions.
– The price of electricity paid by households increased in direct proportion to the installed capacity of IREN.
– In countries without significant resources in hydroelectricity or nuclear power, the intermittent nature of IREN requires a considerable backup capacity of coal or gas power plants. This will continue to be the case as long as we lack the means to store enormous quantities of electricity – that is, the foreseeable future. The future of electricity generated by IREN is inseparable from the availability of fossil fuels In these countries. In Europe, coal and gas production are now in rapid decline, with the exception of lignite in Germany. The future of electricity generation and the future of IREN will thus be increasingly linked to the availability of imported coal and gas.
This energy policy will also eliminate France’s advantage over the major industrialized countries in its capacity to expand electrical transportation, eliminating gasoline and reducing CO2 emissions. But this is a valuable asset, given climate concerns, increasing uncertainty about the future availability of oil on the international market, and the 50% decline in European oil production since 2000.
Clearly, the quantity of fossil fuels used in any country’s electricity production determines the quantity of CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. The nature of the fossil fuels used counts as well: natural gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal per kWh of electricity produced. Oil is no longer used.
Of the fifteen countries examined in this study, there are only five whose electric mix emits very little CO2, and they are the countries which have succeeded in virtually eliminating fossil fuels from their electricity production: Austria, France, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. They owe their success to exceptional water resources per capita, as is the case of Norway and to a lesser extent, Austria; or, for the other three, to a mix of electric power generation using mainly hydraulic and nuclear, in varying proportions. For these five countries, if the goal is really to reduce their CO2 emissions, we do not see any advantage in a strong development of IREN. It can even be argued that if the IREN were developed by reducing the contribution of nuclear energy in the countries that use it, the performance in terms of CO2 emissions could only deteriorate, as it would be necessary to use fossil fuels to compensate for the intermittence.
The ten other countries, for lack of will or ability to develop sufficiently large resources in hydraulics and / or nuclear, use variable but appreciable amounts of fossil fuels in their electricity production mix. Five of them developed IREN more than the others with the aim (officially, at least) of reducing their CO2 emissions. They are Germany, Denmark, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. However, they have not succeeded in lowering their emissions to the level of the top five, far from it. This is easily explained: the intermittency of IREN requires backup power stations, which must produce much more electricity than the IREN. In countries with insufficient water and / or nuclear resources, this role falls mainly to fossil fuel power plants. Of these five, Denmark, the world’s leading wind energy producer, has managed to cut its emissions the most. However, on analysis, we see that this country uses the hydroelectric power plants of its Scandinavian neighbors, Norway and Sweden, to back up its wind power. What is possible at the level of a small country would no longer be the case on a European scale, which would not have nearly enough hydraulic resources. On the other hand, Germany’s mediocre performance, despite an imposing deployment of IREN, hardly pleads in favour of the use of IREN to reduce CO2 emissions.
IREN and electricity prices for households
While electricity prices in any country are largely determined by public policies as well as the prices of raw materials like fossil fuels and Uranium, we can observe a correlation between the price of electricity to households and the installed capacity of IREN. This is to be expected. Barring huge electricity storage capacities, which do not exist now and probably never will, IREN cannot do without “conventional” backup. The capacity of the IREN are thus added to the existing conventional capacities without any possibility of a significant reduction of the latter.
In Germany, for example, the development of IREN has almost doubled its electricity capacity in 15 years, for power generation that has hardly changed. The extra capital expenditure cannot but affect the price paid by the consumer. Moreover, by reducing the output of conventional power plants, the price of the kWh they produce was increased, since their fixed costs remain the same for a lower level of production. And the adaptations of the networks necessary for the insertion of the IREN further increase this cost.
Note that if the necessary storage capacities were feasible, their cost would undoubtedly be higher than that of the backup power stations!