Power Up

Here's another blog taken from the New Scientist Fix the Planet series. This look at the potential for meeting electricity needs with hardly any fossil fuels hit my inbox at the same time as we have two separate local and relevant upcoming events highlighted on this website.

Adam Vaughan writes: Today, Fix the Planet zooms out to investigate a question facing Europe: how can it cut fossil fuels out of electricity generation almost completely within 13 years? The idea of nearly carbon-free power grids by 2035 has gained traction fast, with the UK adopting the goal last October and the G7 group of countries signing up to it in May. But how will those countries get there? European countries are still firing up gas plants when the weather lowers output from renewables, as Spain did during last week’s heatwave. A new report published yesterday lays out a blueprint for how the goal might be met. Read on for the detail.

A wind farm off the coast of Demark. Photo: Niels Quist / Alamy

Why the rush to clean up electricity by 2035?

The International Energy Agency set the ball rolling. In a report on how the world can meet its climate change goals, which was commissioned by the UK government and made waves last year, the energy watchdog said that by 2035, advanced economies need to reach “overall net-zero emissions” from electricity. That effectively means producing electricity with renewables, some legacy nuclear and about 5 per cent of supply from something else, such as gas-fired power plants with carbon capture, or hydrogen-burning power stations.

“How do we get to full decarbonisation by 2035, subject to security of supply?” says UK energy minister Greg Hands. “This is a really long-term shift [in] electricity generation from hydrocarbon sources, which are relatively low capital investment but high production cost, to a system where we have relatively high capital costs – e.g. building a nuclear power plant, building offshore wind farms, tidal installations, solar farms – but low production costs.” He says the answer is a “portfolio approach”, i.e. lots of different technologies.

What’s new?

The UK-based energy think tank Ember has produced an incredibly granular feasibility check on whether European countries can reach the 2035 goal. The group modelled electricity systems hour-by-hour across EU countries plus others including the UK, Norway andSwitzerland. It found that virtual decarbonisation of the power sector is possible by 2035, while also expanding the amount of electricity supplied. “To my knowledge, this is the first kind of modelling at this level of detail for a clean power system by 2035,” says Ember’s Chris Rosslowe, who led the analysis .

One key finding is that building a bigger clean electricity system will be cheaper than the path countries are currently on: between half a trillion and a trillion euros less, depending on the route taken. The savings largely come from avoided fossil fuel costs, and don’t even taken into account the extremely high fossil fuel prices seen this year (most of the modelling was done in 2021). There’s obviously something in the air, because trade body RenewableUK yesterday laid out its roadmap for the UK meeting the 2035 goal too.

What does the electricity grid look like in 2035 then?

Up to 67 per cent more electricity will be generated, as demand grows to power the take-up of electric vehicles and electric heating. Most strikingly, wind and solar power will dominate the supply, going from 19 per cent in 2019 to between 52 and 78 per cent. The exact amount will vary based on three different pathways the Ember team has modelled. But however much the team tweaked the modelling, the share for wind and solar remained consistently high. “We did a lot of testing around the scenarios to test the most important assumptions, and that high share of wind and solar is hard to budge. It’s the economics,” says Rosslowe. Solar is already the cheapest new electricity generation in the UK and several other European countries.

But what about when wind and solar outstrip demand? Ember’s model suggests that excess electricity will be used in electrolysers (200 to 400 gigawatts worth of them) to produce “green hydrogen” for use in heavy industry and elsewhere. Further flexibility will come from electricity cables between countries, such as the UK-Norway cable that switched on last year, which will double in capacity compared to today. The amount of fossil fuel generation will vary considerably between individual countries. Some, such as Denmark and Spain, will be close to 100 per cent fossil-free. Others will fall short of 95 per cent.

Ember's three scenarios for decarbonised European electricity supplies in 2035

What, no nuclear? The three pathways modelled by Ember see a steady decline in nuclear power and no new nuclear plants. That’s because the models are optimised to minimise cost. Not building new nuclear plants is estimated to save €170 billion by 2035. In reality, several countries have taken decisions to back new nuclear plants, most notably France, Poland and the UK. So Rosslowe’s team ran a further experiment where they forced the model to deploy nuclear plants according to the number that countries have publicly said they will build. T he result: no significant difference to electricity system costs when compared with no new nuclear. “That’s a bit surprising, because nuclear has a reputation for being very expensive - it's certainly expensive in terms of upfront costs,” says Rosslowe. However, he says there remain concerns over nuclear waste and the risk of nuclear plants not being deployed on time (as is happening in the UK). Won’t this be a lot harder in reality? The modelling assumes a dizzying number of new wind turbines and solar panels being installed, equating to 165 gigawatts a year versus the 36 GW built in 2021, which was already a massive jump up from recent years. Rosslowe says there’s definitely enough land available. And for solar he says the deployments are in line with what the solar industry thinks is feasible . But wind looks more challenging, he says. The main bottleneck is a delay in wind farms being permitted by planning authorities. Politicians seem aware this is a major issue. The question is whether they’ll push through the reforms to fix it. The European Commission’s new energy strategy promises to tackle the problem. Meanwhile Hands says of approval times for new UK offshore wind farms: “We're going to get down from four years to one year.” On hydrogen, the IEA noted yesterday that the European Union has strongly bolstered support for the technology since the Ukraine crisis. What’s the message we should take away? “A clean power system by 2035 is a really essential milestone for Europe on the way to net zero,” says Rosslowe. Moreover, his team’s modelling suggests it would save significant amounts of money and curb fossil fuel consumption. “We can have a bigger, cleaner power system overall and at lower cost,” he says.


1. Nature-based solutions, such as tree-planting, will be one of the issues discussed at a major UN biodiversity summit – this week we found out the conference is being moved from China to Canada in December, easing fears it’d be delayed until 2023. 2. Campaigners are trying to recruit governments to spearhead a sustainable food equivalent of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance that launched at COP26 last year. Details here. 3. In case you missed it, Tuesday was #ShowYourStripes day, a climate awareness project based on climate scientist Ed Hawkins’s iconic graphics of global warming since the industrial revolution. Get your stripes here. 4. Here’s a reason to think Ember’s projections for wind power take-up are not far-fetched. Analyst Rystad Energy this week said it expects offshore wind farm developers to spend €53 billion in 2030, up on €15 billion in 2021.

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