Europe's Renewable Electricity Would Survive Catastrophic Climate Change

That's one bit of good news.

Wind turbines

Researchers have discovered the climate change cloud has a silver lining: renewable electricity systems, which are highly dependent on the weather, are likely to continue working in Europe even after a catastrophic shift in the Earth’s atmosphere. Such changes alter metrics like the benefit of transmission and storage by less than five percent.

The research, published Wednesday, found that countries with high levels of wind and solar energy are likely to continue supplying electricity in the worst case scenarios. The continental grid, meanwhile, may need some boosts to ensure electricity continues to flow. Smail Kozarcanin, a PhD fellow in the department of engineering at Denmark’s Aarhus University and the first author on the study, tells Inverse that, to some extent, the team did not expect these results.

“Many studies show that climate change implies more frequent extreme weather, and since wind and solar electricity generation depends on the weather, i.e. wind and sunshine, then it is natural to expect that new extremes would call for a different infrastructure,” Smail tells Inverse. “However, we don’t observe large differences in many of the key-metrics that we have deemed most important for a future large-scale electricity system based on wind and solar energy.”

Changes in various metrics under different climate change scenarios.
Changes in various metrics under different climate change scenarios.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that extreme weather already occurs sometimes in the present day climate, so renewable systems are designed with extreme conditions in mind. Another is that electricity demands don’t depend that much on the weather, and if anything, demand drops slightly in the warmer weather as Europe uses less air conditioning due to its latitude.

“The slight reduction in wind and solar energy generation, i.e. the amount of electricity generated by the same wind turbine or solar cell in the different climate scenarios, does appear to be slightly negatively affected by climate change,” Smail says. “That is, warmer scenarios tend to have reduced output from the same generators. This means that more generators will be required to produce the same amount of renewable energy, making them slightly less economically competitive.”

The research shows the strength of existing renewables systems, which are gradually increasing in popularity across the globe. The solar industry in the United States has increased 159 percent in terms of workforce size over the past eight years, while overall wind energy capacity in the Americas reached 135 gigawatts last year. Data from BP shows that renewable energy consumption grew by 17 percent in 2017, but still only accounts for eight percent of global electricity.

The group’s research paper, “21st Century Climate Change Impacts on Key Properties of a Large-Scale Renewable-Based Electricity System,” has been published in the journal Joule.

A graph explaining the researchers' projections.
A graph explaining the researchers' projections.

“To the best of our knowledge there exists no studies in the literature for which climate change data have been applied to this kind of electricity system modeling,” Smail says, who notes that similar studies have been conducted on the United States and China’s electricity systems, but these only looked at historical production data.

However, Smail notes that the study only looked at the electricity grid. This is just a small section of humanity’s broader energy usage, which encompasses heating and transport. The team expects to research wider effects on heating and electricity in a future study, an important area of research as around 50 percent of the continent’s energy usage is for heating. Under the most dramatic projections for climate change, with no policy considerations, the need for space heating drops 33 percent while the need for cooling rises 400 percent.

With that in mind, the positive results should not serve as a signal that climate change will work out better than expected. Just because Europe’s electricity grid will be fine, doesn’t mean everything else will work out okay.

“During the last decade it is evident that climate change is causing more frequent and more erratic weather events, also in Europe,” Smail says. “This is definitively a serious topic of great concern to human and natural systems. The reality is somehow different when assessing the impact of climate change on a European large-scale weather driven electricity system.”

Read the abstract below:

Falling prices and significant technology developments currently drive an increased weather-dependent electricity production from renewables. In light of the changing climate, it is relevant to investigate to what extent climate change directly impacts future highly weather-dependent electricity systems. Here, we use three IPCC CO2 concentration pathways for the period 2006–2100 with six high-resolution climate experiments for the European domain. Climate data are used to calculate bias-adjusted 3-hourly time series of wind and solar generation and temperature-corrected demand time series for 30 European countries using the state-of-the-art methodology. Weather-driven electricity system analysis is then applied to compare five key metrics of highly renewable electricity systems. We find that climate change reduces the need for dispatchable electricity by up to 20%. The remaining key metrics, such as the benefit of transmission and storage as well as requirements for balancing capacity and reserves, change by up to 5%.