Europe’s renewable power push will be a “big mistake” unless it significantly increases investment in the continent’s electricity grid to cope with mismatches in supply and demand, warns the chief executive of European energy major Eon.
Leonhard Birnbaum, who took over last month as president of Eurelectric, the European electricity industry body, said the accelerated installation of wind turbines and solar panels across the EU as the bloc tries to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels was creating bottlenecks that the grid was not designed to cope with.
To support the rapid increase in renewables, Eurelectric estimates that investment in the grid needs to increase by between 50 and 70 per cent to reach €34bn-€39bn a year by 2030.
“If we accelerate renewables, we need to accelerate the grid,” Birnbaum said. “If we accelerate renewables only, we are making a big mistake.”
Despite Europe having younger and generally more resilient electricity grids than the US, he said, reserve capacity designed to offset shortages when the weather is not optimal for renewable power was already stretched by the number of wind turbines and solar panels that had been brought online since the war in Ukraine started.
“We have been adding renewables, often using up reserves which we traditionally had in the grid . . . we built a system with lots of reserves. The reserve is gone,” Birnbaum said.
Solar capacity in the bloc has increased by 40 gigawatts this year, a 40 per cent increase on the new capacity added during 2021 and enough to supply 12mn homes, according to SolarPower Europe.
Russia’s curtailment of most of its gas exports to the EU in retaliation for its support for Ukraine has forced the bloc to rapidly diversify its energy supply. Both the European Commission and EU governments have signed agreements to increase shipments of gas from other regions at the same time as pushing for the installation of more renewable power.
In May, Brussels said it wanted to increase an EU-wide target for the proportion of renewable energy in its total supply from 40 per cent to 45 per cent by 2030 — a proposal that is still pending agreement among member states.
It also called for an extra €29bn of funding into the power grid by 2030 and on Friday, announced a new solar industry alliance to encourage investment in large-scale photovoltaic factories and increase solar capacity in the bloc six times by 2030.
Eon, one of Europe’s largest utilities with operations in 20 European countries, has said that it plans to connect 37GW of new renewables to its networks by 2026, equivalent to the total amount of wind and solar capacity installed across Europe in 2021.
Eurelectric’s call for more funding was echoed in a letter sent by the European wind and chemical industry associations to the European Commission this week. It said “accelerating the deployment of new, and the strengthening of, electricity grids is an absolute priority”, adding that Europe had underinvested in its electricity infrastructure over the past decade.
Birnbaum added that with the EU targeting net zero emissions by 2050, the situation is likely to become more challenging as demand for power increases to meet clean energy goals.
“We get into the situation that even while the system might be in equilibrium, locally [there might be] overconsumption because I’m charging, for example, too many e-cars in one road,” he said. “The system is getting much more challenging for us as operators.”
The Eon boss also warned that the EU’s interventions in the energy market this year, particularly windfall taxes on renewable producers that were due to be implemented by member states from December 1, had knocked the confidence of investors in power companies.
“Once you set a hugely ambitious target for 10 years, you need to back that up with some sort of investor certainty. Otherwise it remains a pious hope.”
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