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All Renewable Energy Plan for Europe

Posted on 28 May 2020 by michael sweet

Smart Energy Europe: A Plan to provide 100% of ALL ENERGY using Renewable Energy to Europe


All Energy renewable energy systems are often commented on here at Skeptical Science.  Many comments suggest that it will be difficult, expensive or impossible to use renewable energy to power the world.  To bring everyone up to date, here is a review of an All Energy plan for renewable energy in Europe.


Smart Energy Europe Connelly et al 2016 (300 citations, peer reviewed;  free similar paper) details a map of the transition from the current energy system to one using 100% renewable energy for All Energy (All Energy is all energy used in the economy:  electricity, transportation, heat and industry).  They find that using renewable energy for All Energy will cost about the same (within 10%) as using fossil fuels in Europe.  In addition, there will be about 10 million new jobs created and no money exported to other regions for fuel so the economy will expand.  Their plan includes the expense of building out all the renewable generators, all storage required and the expense of additional infrastructure like district heating.


There exists a large amount of peer reviewed literature (Jacobson 2018,  Aghahosseani et al 2017,  Hansen et al 2019 ) on the topic of converting to a completely renewable energy system.  This post details one proposed pathway to get to 100% non-carbon energy in Europe.  For other parts of the world similar paths would work.  Examining the pathway for Europe allows us to see key points for a 100% non-carbon world.

It has been shown ( Aghahosseini et al 2017) that it is cheaper to build out a bigger system than a smaller system.   For example, it is cheaper to build out a system for all the USA than one for each state.  This is logical since some states like Florida have large solar resources while the Mid-West has a large wind resource.  It is cheaper for Florida to import wind energy at night than to generate all its own energy.   Many plans now cover large grids.It has also been shown (Lund et al 2017) that it is much cheaper to build out a complete energy system (electricity, transportation, industry and heat) than to build out separate systems for each energy need.  Plans that focus on electricity only are not as useful for long range system planning because they are not efficient. 

In Smart Energy they point out three key characteristics of the fossil energy system:

  • Fossil fuels have provided very large and cheap energy storage over the past 150 years
  • The energy system consists of very segregated energy branches (transportation, heat, electricity, industry)
  • There is currently no direct replacement for the fossil fuels in today’s energy system

Because storage is so cheap using fossil fuels the system has developed to be very inflexible.  Using intermittent renewable sources (primarily wind and solar), a more flexible energy system is required.

Steps Required

Smart Energy Europe describes a renewable energy system where the energy systems (electricity, transportation, heat and industry) are interwoven.  The system is much more efficient when interwoven compared to separate.

Nine steps are set out to calculate the transformation from fossil energy to renewable energy.  These are not actual proposed steps, they are steps used to calculate the costs of the conversion to renewable energy.  In reality, several steps are implemented at the same time.  By evaluating the changes necessary at each step we determine the critical changes that have to be implemented.

The nine steps are:

  1. Initial projected fossil system for 2050 (baseline system). 
  2. Eliminate nuclear power.  
  3. Implement economic heat (cooling) savings.  
  4. Convert to electric cars. 
  5. Convert all heating (cooling) to heat pumps. 
  6. Install district heating where economic. 
  7. Introduce electrofuels for remaining transport needs.
  8. Replace industrial usage of coal and oil with natural gas. 
  9. Replace fossil natural gas with electromethane. 

The energy system is now entirely renewable energy.  Key observations from these steps are discussed below.

Key Observations

1) Smart Energy Europe uses EU28 ref 2050 as their reference scenario for future energy needs.

2) Nuclear power is inflexible and must be run all the time to be economic.  Removing nuclear allows the amount of variable renewable energy to be substantially increased.  There is a small increase in CO2 released.

3) Increasing insulation and other building changes to make them more efficient are economically helpful.   Decreasing energy demands makes the system cheaper. 

4) Converting to electric cars reduces the emitted CO2 and increases electric demand.  Charging cars is flexible because if electricity is cheap during the day cars can be charged then but if electricity is cheaper at night the cars can be charged at night.  The increased demand combined with more flexible charging of cars enables more renewable energy in the system.

5) Electric heat pumps are much more efficient than boilers to supply heat.  Replacing fossil heaters in businesses and homes with heat pumps reduces CO2 emissions, reduces the primary amount of heat required and increases the percentage of all energy that is electric.  More renewable energy can be used in the system.

6) District heating uses less energy than individual heat pumps where it is economic.  In addition, district heaters have large storage systems where heat (or cold) is stored for future use.  Heat storage is about 100 times cheaper than electrical storage H Lund et al 2016,  .  Implementing district heat reduces electricity demand and makes the system much more flexible.  For example, currently many industrial heat pumps run all night , when electricity is cheap, and store the heat in large water tanks.   During the day the hot water is used to heat buildings.  The heat pumps can be run any time electricity is cheap and additional storage is cheap to build.  The combination of demand flexibility and heat storage add much resilience to the system.

Table of energ ycosts

7) Equivalents of natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel can be made from electrolysis of carbon dioxide and water, by the decomposition of biomass or a combination of these processes.  These are called electrofuels.  Substituting electrofuels for fossil fuels results in a large increase in electricity demand.  Additional flexibility in energy demand is a key benefit (electrofuel plants are generally assumed to shut down first when electricity supply is low).  In addition, the electrofuels can be stored in existing fossil fuel storage.  Storage of electrofuels is approximately 1,000 times cheaper than storage of electricity.  H Lund et al 2016,   This supercheap storage of energy is a key benefit of examining all the energy system and not just electricity.

8) This step converts all remaining uses of fossil coal and oil to natural gas.

9) In this step more electromethane is produced to make the system entirely renewable energy.   Combined cycle gas turbines burning methane provide electrical back up on days when the wind and sun are not strong enough to provide enough electricity.

Smart Energy Europe find that a 100% renewable energy system for Europe (E28) would cost about 10% more than the projected costs of a fossil system in the year 2050.  Considering  the error in estimating costs that far out these two numbers could be considered equivalent.  In addition, the renewable energy system was not optimized for cost in their model.  Optimizing the system for cost may even lower the cost of the renewable energy.

Table of energy supply

The final renewable energy system would consist of approximately:

  • 2750 GW of offshore wind
  • 900 GW of onshore wind
  • 700 GW of solar PV
  • 3800 TWh of bioenergy (this amount of bioenergy  is at the low end of estimated bioenergy  supply for the E28.)

Key Findings and Observations

Examining the results some points become clear.  For example, the electrofuels are a major cost in the system.  These are cheaper to make from bioenergy than from direct electrolysis from CO2.  Electricity is very efficient at heating/cooling buildings.  Bioenergy is not efficient at heating buildings.  Thus it is cheaper to use bioenergy to produce electrofuels than to use the bioenergy to heat buildings (not enough bioenergy is available to do both).

Greater electrical demand allows a higher percentage of electricity to be generated by intermittent renewable sources (wind and solar).

Large amounts of expensive electrical storage are not necessary.

District heating helps store energy in addition to being an efficient source of heat.  It makes sense to have policies to promote district heating. 

Likewise policies that support increasing heat efficiency of buildings are important to implement.  Building codes that require greater efficiency save money and reduce the amount of energy needed in the system.

Laws that encourage faster uptake of electric cars help the transition.

Converting fossil energy usage to natural gas helps the transition to renewable energy in the end.

Building combined cycle gas peaker units combined with electromethane provides backup energy.  The system should be set up so that as little gas peakers as possible are used.

Subsidizing the production of electrofuels will help get that industry started.  They can implement scale up and develop more efficient methods of manufacture of their products.

Electrofuels are a very cheap way to store energy long term.  Using electrofuels for storage can be cheaper than other proposed storage like pumped hydro and batteries.

Because it is so inflexible nuclear power does not work well in a renewable world.  In addition, it is very expensive electricity.

The Smart Energy plan includes other types of renewable energy like hydropower and geothermal.  They were left out for brevity.

The authors of Smart Energy Europe did not optimize the system for lowest cost.  There are a number of items like the amounts of wind and solar power, how bioenergy is utilized and modal shifts in the transport sector that would lower overall costs.  This analysis was designed to show that renewable energy was possible, similar in cost and achievable using existing technology.  Further optimization may result in lower costs and result in an even more competitive system.

The system described in Smart Energy Europe is completely different from Jacobson’s system in his papers.   Both systems lead to complete renewable energy systems at a cost similar to or less than fossil fuels.  This indicates that there are many ways to build a cost effective renewable system.  Additional benefits accrue from lower pollution and local investment.  The only thing holding us back from switching to renewable energy is political will. 

Vote Climate!!


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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. "Replace fossil natural gas with electromethane."

    Sounds good. As mentioned this apparently eliminates the need for masses of expensive battery or hydro storage. That being the case if its so great, why are generating companies still choosing to build pumped hydro  and battery storage farms (for example in S Australia but elsewhere as well)? Is it just still at experimental stage? Are there any hidden downsides?

    Something someone posted over at RC:This new battery technology looks very affordable.  

    And yes residential heat pumps are great, and cheap to run, But they are expensive to buy and install, and you pretty much need double glazing and high levels of wall insulation, because they dont put out all that much heat. Most people can't afford all this, so I would suggest it needs a government subsidy or other incentive, or it wont get off the ground at scale.


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  2. Nigelj,

    As described in the OP, the Smart Energy Europe plan is for efficient generation of All Power required in the economy.  Many generating companies choose to rely on simple electric only plans that describe the need for large amounts of electrical storage.  That simply means that those companies are not planning long range, not that expensive pumped hydro and battery storage are needed.  I note that Jacobson 2018 (linked in the OP) includes exactly zero additional pumped hydro storage for all of North America (I did not check any other areas).  A small number of battery farms like the one in Australia might be needed but most energy storage would not be batteries.

    Replacing fossil natural gas with electromethane is the last step in the process. You need very high amounts of renewable energy in the system before it is useful to make electrofuels.  The process of making electrofuels has been demonstrated and is well known.  It is not yet economic to make electrofuels, fossil fuels are cheaper and the grid has too much electricity from fossil to make it worthwhile.  Obviously if you use fossil fuel powered electricity to make electrofuels you will lose energy.

    The battery power you cite is still several orders of magnitude more expensive than the storage of electrofuels.  In general, for both pumped hydro and batteries they are only economic if they are charged and discharged on a daily basis.  For long term storage of power, for example if the system generates excess power in the summer and needs storage for winter use, storage of electrofuels are pratical while pumped hydro and batteries are too expensive.

    Here in Florida air source heat pumps are used for air conditioning.  They are available in any size required, how could they possibly not produce enough heat?  Ground source heat pumps, which are more efficient, are just coming on the market.  From what I have read they are expensive to retrofit to a building but are economic for new build.  Perhaps subsidies to promote them would help more installations.  More insulation, which pays back in a couple of years, is resisted by builders because they want to minimize initial price.  That is very short sighted.  After the short pay back period more insulation makes the house more valuable since heating costs are so low.  Long term efficient heat pumps will save money.

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  3. michael sweet @2

    Thank's for the info.

    "Here in Florida air source heat pumps are used for air conditioning. They are available in any size required, how could they possibly not produce enough heat? "

    In NZ  heat pumps struggle to sometimes produce enough heat when temperatures are very cold, as noted here (and this is a rant promoting heat pumps so probably understates the issue a bit). My neighbours have a reasonably modern heat pump, and had to double glaze their windows and even then sometimes they need additional heating from a fan heater. That said, heat pumps are a good investment especially longer term. Sadly a lot of people think short term, but when they have to pay so many bills one can't blame them.

    We have subsidies for wall insulation and solar panels, but not heat pumps and double glazing. I guess you can't subsidise everything, but if we are serious about mitigating climate change plus promoting the best heating its hard to escape the need for subsidies or tax breaks.

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  4. The problem for householders is that pretty well all the so-called "investments" in domestic systems are nothing of the sort - at least financially.  I can give you two personal examples.

    Windows.  Most windows in the UK are double glazed and many people have removed perfectly sound single glazed windows to replace them with double units, at, let's say, around £1,000 per window.  What people are now finding out is that these windows don't last that long - often, in 20 years or less, the seals go and you need to replace the glazing at about £500 per window.  I have calculated that sound double glazing saves me about £200 a year  - that's with 19 windows, so £10,000 to repair them all, and they're pretty well shot now, so that's a 50 year payback time (even without inflation and capital interest taken into account)!

    Solar water heating.  I put this into my previous house at a cost of £4,500.  It worked well, but again, only saved me around £100 a year - and an annual service cost £100!.  After 15 years I sold the house and the presence of the system returned not one penny in added value to the property.

    I believe the average length of house ownership in the UK is around 6 years.  In addition, the ratio of renting to ownership is changing quickly, in favour of the former.

    Of course, this is just the personal financial side of it and a broader interpretation of "investment" is another matter entirely, but without very substantial incentives, any technology with high capital cost to householders is never going to take off.  In the meantime, cost are much less when installed in new builds, but successive governments, whilst making encouraging noises, are still reluctant to go against the lobbying of the big house building companies who do most of the building in the UK and want to keep building costs at a minimum (also, there's a skills shortage - it's hard enough to find a new build with bathroom walls tiled properly, let alone complicated heating and ventilation systems installed competently).

    So, major public investment seems the only way forward.  Given the current fashion in the West for low taxes/small government, good luck with that.

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  5. DavidOwen @4 ,

    sorry to hear about the very expensive double-glazed windows failing at 20 years.  Have you considered some of those cheap German triple-glazed windows?   (But I guess you are needing bespoke sizes, which would distinctly increase the cost.)

    For a cheapskate like me, if my window sealing deteriorated and the argon escaped, then I would grab my clear-silicone-sealant squirtgun and DIY (after putting a tablespoon of absorbent silica crystals into the glazing interspace).  Air is a bit less efficient insulator than argon ~ but the cost-benefit ratio looks good!   If you are disinclined to be a gunslinger, then hire a handyman to tackle those 19 windows.  Shouldn't go much more than a 1,000 quid (perhaps a touch more, if two storeys).

    I confess I am surprised that your hot-water system saved you only 100/year.   That's a low water usage !

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  6. @DavidOwen100

    "Most windows in the UK are double glazed and many people have removed perfectly sound single glazed windows to replace them with double units, at, let's say, around £1,000 per window. What people are now finding out is that these windows don't last that long - often, in 20 years or less, the seals go and you need to replace the glazing at about £500 per window."

    Most vinyl windows are designed for easy replacement of their insulated glass (IG) windows, should the seals fail.  Once the replacement IG unit is on-hand, the process takes about 10-15 minutes per window, depending upon the design of the window and the expertise of the installer.  I know, because I've done it myself, for a small fraction of the cost of a new vinyl window.

    You'll have to entirely reformulate your calculations.

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  7. The costs I quote are with me doing the installation - I agree, it's quite easy; I've already replaced half a dozen.  It's an old house with thick stone walls and all the windows are odd sizes, no two are the same, so the glass needs to be made to order.  With regard to the water heating, don't forget that in the UK we only receive sufficient insolation to rely wholly on that for about 3-4 months a year ( it was 53 degrees north there and slap in the middle of the Cheshire Gap, so cloudy even for the UK) and the rest of the time I was using at least some oil, which was, and remains, the cheapest option for domestic water and space heating if relying on traditional methods.  At the moment, I'm using around 400 litres a year for water heating (I have no other source of heating water now) for two of us.

    Anyway, the point I'm making is to agree with Nigel, that subsidies are essential to encourage the takeup of better technologies, especially when FF is, I believe, still so heavily subsidised itself.  Perhaps part of the answer is to remove those, mostly hidden, subsidies and let renewables fend for themselves on a level playing field, but that would force up end-user costs for everyone.

    Of course, the ideal would be to promote a huge increase in insulation and other ways to reduce energy consumption - but there's far less profit in that.

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  8. DavidOwen, if I may continue anecdotally :-

    Some years ago, a relative of mine living in Germany took advantage of governmental interest-free loans, and did a thorough "job" on the house ~ general insulation and double (or triple?) glazing of windows.  I've forgotten the cost, but it ran to many thousands of Euros.  The result is that five of the six huge oil tanks under the house are now effectively redundant.

    Not sure whether the interest-free governmental loans would be counted as subsidies.   Nett long-term cost to the taxpayer is nil, other than the very small interest amount.  The homeowner wins, economically.  The country wins, from reduced oil imports and/or reduced electricity generation.

    Though I haven't seen an analysis for Germany, it seems likely that it's an efficient arrangement.  No compulsion.  The homeowner gets to assess what should best be attended to for the individual house.

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  9. Perhaps these windows were simply of poor quality. My house has its original windows, they are more than 20 years old and (knock on wood) doing just fine...

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  10. A $20 billion plan (Guardian article) to build a giant solar farm in the Australian outback has been announced.  Much of the electricity will be transmitted to Singapore to replace expensive gas generated electricity.  I recently saw a description of a scheme to manufacture hydrogen using electricity from a giant solar array in Australia.

    The price of solar power is now so much lower than fossil energy that this type of plan can make money.  Hopefully more giant farms will replace current fossil generators.  The Southwest USA has a large area perfect  for this type of farm.  Usable deserts exist in many locations worldwide.  Existing gas generators can supply backup power at night while storage solutions are developed.

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  11. This news article from Politico (a USA news web site) states that the renewable energy sector has expanded under President Trump even though his administration has done as much as possible to support fossil fuels.  At the same time fossil fuel companies are going bankrupt or shrinking operations.  Fossil fuel operations have always been boom and bust so that is not really a surprise. 

    Biden has stated that his administration will support renewable energy to help the environment.

    The expansion of renewable energy seems to be because renewable energy is now the cheapest energy.  Companies also see the writing on the wall that renewable energy will be the energy source of the future so most companies are increasing investments in renewable and reducing investments in fossil fuels.

    10 years ago we all hoped this type of change would occur but it seemed unlikely because renewable energy was too expensive.  Hopefully the shift in cost of renewable energy will be in time to limit the damage from climate change.

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