Today, many European countries offer favourable framework conditions for the expansion of renewable energies. If these remain in place and continue to evolve, the electricity production from renewables could multiply by the year 2020. The installed wind power alone will reach 180,000 MW throughout Europe, according to industry estimates – almost three times as much as the current capacity of around 65,000 MW. In recent years, some EU countries have demonstrated the kind of dynamic growth that is possible when suitable framework conditions with fixed feed-in tariffs are in place. France for example has increased its installed wind power almost five-fold in the years since 2005.
Renewables technology advances
The industry has definitely done its homework: In wind energy, significant advances in design and engineering allow for the profitable operation of wind turbines also at less windy sites. Because each additional metre of hub height results in a one percent yield increase, the abolition of height restrictions has become the main factor for the sustained growth of wind power generation at inland sites. Other renewable energies too, such as solar power, boast substantial increases in efficiency. Manufacturers believe that photovoltaics will reach the so-called grid parity within just a few years. Electricity generated on top of one’s own roof will then cost the same as power from the wall, giving the solar industry reason to hope for a strong stimulus for this market.
Nuclear power and coal lack flexibility
To continue such a strong growth, the framework conditions must remain reliable. Dynamic growth is not only sustained by fixed tariffs and priority grid access for electricity from renewable sources – supplanting the use of nuclear energy is another important contributing factor. About two thirds of the regenerative electricity in 2020 is expected to originate from wind and solar installations. Other power producers must fit themselves to this in order to enable effective and cost-efficient power production.
The energy mix of the year 2020 with priority for renewables has almost no room left for nuclear and fossil-fuelled power plants and their inflexibility. The renaissance of nuclear power currently in progress in some European states is therefore bound to be a dead end.
E.on and EDF demand cap for renewables
While presenting their plans for the construction of new nuclear power plants in England, E.on and EDF demanded a cap for the development of renewables once their share of power consumption had reached 20 % (EDF) or 30 % (E.on). This shows that Europe’s large utility companies have long since understood the fact that renewable energies and nuclear power can only exist side by side until wind, solar, etc. gain the upper hand. After that, there is no more room on the grid for nuclear power. The utility companies will thus do everything in their power to fight the priority treatment of renewable energies.
Extending the service life of nuclear power plants and building new, unwieldy coalfired power stations creates roadblocks on the path towards the continued growth of renewable energies. New coal-fired power stations on the coast – be they as efficient as they may – clog up the grids for decades to come; grids that are needed to transport the wind electricity to the centres of consumption in the Western and Southern regions of Germany.
Alternative storage solutions
Instead of unwieldy fossil and nuclear power plants, flexible solutions are needed. Already today, Germany alone has storage systems available with a capacity of 7 GW, corresponding to about ten average coalfired power stations (figures from 2007). When electricity production is high and demand low, water reservoirs can be filled and then when additional power is needed, be used at short notice to supplement electricity production. Another step is to increase the electricity exchange with Scandinavian and Alpine countries. Switzerland and Austria are already building numerous pumped storage power stations.
Non-renewables will have to fall in line behind
A sea cable connects the Netherlands to Norway and exploits considerable water storage potential there; another cable between Germany and Norway is planned for 2014. In terms of figures, the hydropower reservoirs in Norway, Sweden, and Finland could provide Europe’s largest consumer Germany with electricity for three months.
Many pumped storage power stations in the Alps are still tied by long-term contracts to large utility companies who use these systems to convert their inflexible nuclear or coal power into flexible balancing energy. So fossil energies and nuclear power are already monopolising storage capacities that could be used for green energy.
The European elections will also set the course for Europe’s power station fleet of the future. If the course is set by the wind and the sun, the other energy sources will have to fall in line behind, and not vice versa.