Now, 23% of electricity production in the European Union is provided by wind and solar energy, according to a study published by a think tank dedicated to energy transition. Faced with an unprecedented climate crisis, this “green burst” raises new hopes for the environment. But should we believe in a lasting turning point, when it coincides with the start of the war in Ukraine? Cross-analysis, with four engineers specializing in energy.
The promises of a “climatic spring”, in the heart of winter? This is what the annual study of the think tank Ember on energy and climate suggests: the energy crisis born of the conflict in Ukraine has pushed the European Union (EU) to save 12 billion euros on its imports of gas in one year, while sun and wind now provide 23% of its total electricity production – a share which now exceeds that of gas, that of coal, and is proving to be higher than the most optimistic forecasts.
By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has unwittingly accelerated global decarbonization by five to ten years, cautiously enthuses The Economist. How to explain it? The climatic danger posed by fossil fuels was certainly known to everyone, but the war at the gates of Europe brutally reminded him of the geopolitical virtues of the energy transition.
Well before the start of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24, 2022, solar and wind power were already the two energies in which the Twenty-Seven invested the most, recalls Nicolas Berghmans, researcher in climate and energy policies at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). Also, for Cyrille Cormier, an engineer specializing in energy transition, the surge in wind and solar power is the fruit of projects born years earlier. If solar and wind seem to have the wind in their sails, it is also thanks to weather particularly favorable to these two energies in 2022, also qualifies the study by the think tank Ember.
The question of storage
At a time of climate anxiety, the prospect of natural forces supplying Europe with ever more electricity appears to be good news. But Thierry Bros, energy adviser at the Energy Center of the Jacques Delors Institute, puts it into perspective: inconstant, solar and wind energy are dependent on the vagaries of the weather.
An inconstancy which increases the price of the bill: it is the decoupling between the moment when the energy is produced and when it is consumed which induces additional costs, to adapt the electricity network to natural hazards. And this, even if the megawatt hour of solar or wind origin, in itself, is the most profitable that is in many regions of the globe, including Europe, explains Nicolas Berghmans.
Among the range of possible solutions: storing electricity. For Thierry Bros, this is the Achilles heel of wind and solar energy. In the absence of technical solutions for large-scale storage, he prefers to bet on the diversification of electrical energy sources.
With, precisely, barely 23% of European electricity production provided by wind and solar power, the fear of a shortage has no reason to be, explains Nicolas Nace, in charge of the Energy Transition campaign at Greenpeace France: storage issues would not arise at less than 70% wind and solar electricity. “Let’s talk about it the day we have reached such a goal”, in short, suggests the young engineer.
The moments of tension, those where all the capacities are put at the service of consumption, already exist, concedes Cyrille Cormier, but are very rare. The engineer demolishes a received idea: while it would have been quick to blame the absence of wind or sun, the instability of the network in recent years is mainly explained by the inconsistencies of hydroelectricity, peril by increasingly severe droughts, and by those of the French nuclear fleet. The production of this one is indeed slowed down by more and more complex maintenance, and more and more frequent defects since 2016.
These flirtations with shortages, in a Europe weaning itself off Russian gas, have pushed industries towards another source of energy: coal. Developing renewables to finally relight coal-fired power plants makes no ecological sense, notes Thierry Bros. Burning carbon-rich coal is one of the primary culprits of global warming.
Feared at the start of the war, Europe’s massive return to coal nevertheless did not take place. The use of coal has increased by 7%, while the experts were betting on 20%, recalls Nicolas Nace. “Most of the power plants only operated for a few hours, often to get through the big winter consumption peaks,” explains the engineer.
Faced with coal, the price is the sinews of war for Thierry Bros, in favor of invoicing for the lowest CO emissions2. “If Germany paid the cost of its emissions, perhaps it would stop closing nuclear power plants that do not pollute and use coal. The economic principle of polluter pays, it works and it has always worked. are we really waiting to fully apply it?” asks the engineer.
From the United States to the Arabian Gulf, Europe has also strengthened its commercial ties with other gas-producing countries. Should we expect, after the first year of the war, to see the Twenty-Seven finally return to non-Russian but still polluting gas? Probably not, answer most of the experts contacted. And this for a reason of a pecuniary nature: “Shipped by sea, and not by terrestrial gas pipelines, the gas that we now buy from countries like Qatar costs us more, which will encourage consumers to move towards ‘other sources of energy’, predicts Nicolas Berghmans.
In 2020, the crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic had also raised its share of hopes for the environment. According to the most idealistic, the ordeal crossed was even to reconcile man with the planet.
The confinements had led to a large drop in CO emissions2. This finally ended with a brutal economic recovery, sweeping away the promise of a “world after”.
How, then, can we expect another outcome in the face of the timid progress resulting from the war in Ukraine? By betting on the new reality of the energy market, answer most of the specialists interviewed by France 24. The rise in the price of fossil fuels, coupled with the exponential drop in the cost of renewable energies under the effect of economies of scale, that is what could confirm this shift towards renewables, from 2023.
Even if the war ended tomorrow, Europe would retain its desire for energy independence vis-à-vis countries like Russia, predicts Nicolas Nace. The bad news, sighs the young man, is that we need to be up against the wall to act: if this turning point had been taken yesterday, this ecological and geopolitical crisis would not have taken such a scale. But nothing is ever lost, concludes one of his colleagues: “Let’s act today.”
Source: France 24