The European electricity transition, a dead end?

by Jean-Pierre Schaeken Willemaers
Institute Thomas More, President, Energy Pole, Climate, Environnement

French version

The energy transition is widely covered in the media, often unambiguously (what some call the confiscated debate) ignoring the socio-economic consequences. In this paper, we will limit ourselves to its electrical component. First of all, let us remember that the primary purpose of an electrical system is to ensure the adequacy between electricity production and consumption.

It goes without saying, although it is not obvious to everyone, that we must anticipate the necessary adaptations of the system before proceeding with the implementation of the change. In this process, the analysis of the impact on the transmission and distribution of electricity and on the continuity of the services as well as the realization of the corresponding works required, have priority. However, none of the countries that decided to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been concerned about the consequences of their decisions. This explains the problems of countries that have rushed into a strategy of accelerated penetration of intermittent renewable electricity generation.

 1 / The case of Germany is exemplary in this respect. The problem is not that it has become involved in wind and photovoltaic production (although the environmental impact of the materials needed for their production should be better taken into account), but that it has done so in the haste without having prepared this change of electric mix, and without taking into account the socio-economic impacts. Moreover, Germany simultaneously decided to leave the nuclear generation with an immediate effect for 50% of its capacity, the latter 50% must be turned down in 2022. This last decision is particularly incoherent because nuclear generation emits no more GHGs than the intermittent renewable energy sector, is cheap (because it is amortized) and, in order to meet electricity consumption needs, Germany had to resort to coal plants (particularly polluting) and even to build new ones. As a result, instead of decreasing, GHG emissions have increased!

Berlin now expects a 32% reduction in its GHG emissions in 2020 compared to 1990, against 40% previously and therefore will not achieve its objectives. “The effect of the measures taken so far has been overestimated,” as acknowledged by the Environment Minister Svenja Schulze in June 2018, while Peter Altmeier called for “not going headlong into the energy transition.”

In addition, on 25 January 2019, the members of the Coal Commission agreed to phase out coal plants only between 2022 and 2038 (not before 2045 for RWE). The reconversion of the mining regions will cost 40 billion euros while 2 billion euros will be spent to offset the rise in electricity prices for the consumer in addition to the compensation of the operators that will cost billions of euros.

2 / Another case study is Australia, a country heavily involved in wind energy.
On September 28, 2018, South Australia suffered a total electric blackout. Two wind farms suddenly stopped supplying the grid, overloading the interconnection with the neighboring state of Victoria and plunging South Australia into total darkness as a result of the unavailability of local thermal generation. Several days were needed to replenish all the subscribers because only a gradual return to service kept the voltage and the frequency under control. This again highlights the fact that a high penetration of intermittent renewable energy seriously complicates the management of the electricity system and requires specific heavy investments to ensure balance, these costs being, of course, borne by the end consumers.

3 / The energy policy in France is also full of inconsistencies. While its electricity is essentially from the nuclear and hydro-electric sectors, i.e. not emitting GHGs, the French government has decided to open the electricity mix for wind and photovoltaic energy. This project of modification of the electric mix is purely political and very expensive. It is underpinned by France’s desire to present itself as the European leader in low carbon policy, regardless of the price the citizen has to pay. The realization of such objectives against wind and tides fears an authoritarian drift to impose the doxa.

 4 / The countries of Eastern Europe favor their socio-economic development and are less sensitive to climate considerations. Their priority is to make up for the backlog they accumulated during the Soviet era. They are not ready to give up fossil fuels quickly, and many of them intend to invest in new nuclear power plants.

5 / Now and particularly since COP 21, the EU is the only bloc that has committed, with a few countries, to a low carbon policy with all that this implies in terms of change of society, heavy investments essential to the pursuit of climate objectives, the fall of competitiveness, etc. It is to be feared that in order to reach their climate goals at all costs, the EU and the Member States engaged in the radical change of electricity mix, do not put in place a strict control system, via agencies, committees and various plans designed to regulate individual activities, economic and social activities, at the expense of individual liberties and the well-being of the population.

 6 / The rest of the world, i.e. the vast majority of countries are careful not to embark on such an adventure in order to preserve future growth and prosperity. The European energy transition is therefore unlikely to provoke a significant ripple effect but, on the other hand, it will lead to the economic weakening of the European Union and, consequently, to a loss of influence at an international level.

Conclusion

Given the aforementioned inconsistencies, the bad performances of the European low carbon policy, or even the failures mentioned above, would it not be more reasonable to adopt a more pragmatic approach taking more into account the socio-economic impacts?

Notes

1. These are mainly Western or assimilated countries such as Australia.
2. “Peril over Belgian electricity”, J.P. Schaeken Willemaers, Texquis, April 2018.
3. Violetta Bonnebas, “In Germany, the energy transition is bogged down”, Raporterre, October 3, 2018.

Nb This article was published in La Libre on March 27, 2019.