Renewable Energy for the EU:
An Unconventional Affair
Written by Konstantinos Paschalis and Data Visualization by Miliana Bocher
Humanity has always feared the uncommon, the untested, the unfamiliar. During the advent of the telephone in the 1890s, it was thought evil spirits could travel down its wires and affect the user. As electrification emerged in cities, people were so terrified of the possibility of electrocution that they would avoid switching on their lights.
Certainly, unprecedented innovations, and the initial suspicious reactions to them, are not uncommon, but there is no other time in history in which they are needed more. Governments are hurtling towards breaching the warming goal of 1.5oC over pre-industrial levels, spelling disaster for the planet. Concurrently, the EU is faced with the unique challenge of strengthening its energy security, learning a painful lesson from its former reliance on Russian natural gas.
Therefore, quantum leaps in the efficiency of renewables need to be made to tackle these challenges. But conventional sources such as solar, wind or water that received most of €300 billion encapsulated in the 2023 REPower EU plan are fundamentally flawed. Given their lack of constant supply and differences in effectiveness in regards to geography, are currently-used renewable sources adequate to become the energy of the future?
Not entirely. Thus, the EU could benefit from more funding to unconventional energy, a set of novel, experimental sustainable energy sources. As a result, policymakers can balance between mitigating the weakness of conventional renewables whilst also keeping their strengths, such as lower set-up costs than fossil fuel competitors.
Renewable Energy 2.0?
The most promising of these unconventional energies is “green” hydrogen. Using electrolysis, a method designed to break down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, specialized equipment is capable of producing a petroleum-like substance from which energy can be produced around the clock. Resultantly, it should come as no surprise that the EU already promised €2 billion for its development, but the amount sounds measly in comparison to the investments of other key players like the US, who already allocated $10 billion under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Most importantly, hydrogen is extremely versatile. Due to its ability to sustainably power even the most difficult sectors to decarbonise such as aviation, it is being heralded as the “fuel of the future” by consultancies, intergovernmental institutions and many in between. Set-up costs are also low, as already existing gas pipes can be easily adapted to transport the fuel for utilization.
However, hydrogen is relatively inefficient, which leaves potential for another unconventional energy source to contribute. Nuclear power was discovered in the 1930s, but its newest iteration includes a shrunken reactor, in stark contrast to the conventionally-sized units used in member states like France, which derives 68% of its electricity generation from them. These SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) are currently operational in nations like the USA, with many more on the way.
“Many more on the way”
Although smaller, SMRs are more than capable of achieving the unrivaled efficiency their larger counterparts are known for. A recent study by the US Office of Nuclear Energy found that they may be even more productive than regular reactors, as they can be constructed closer to cities that demand the most power. This is particularly due to their passive safety features that shut production down automatically in the case of an accident to limit damages.
Concurrently, the potential for upscaling SMRs is vast. Being constructed with homogenized components, they could be produced en-masse in assembly lines in similar fashion to conventional renewables. They are also equally versatile, with units capable of being scaled appropriately to meet the energy demands of the area.
But the renewable status of SMRs is in question. Due to their small size, they leave behind higher proportions of nuclear waste per unit of output, which could do more harm than good to the environment in the long term. Therefore, a demand is created for an energy source that is not only confidently net-zero, but also net-negative.
Currently, the most fitting for this role is BECCS (BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage). It entails the planting of carbon-intensive crops, subsequently used for biofuel by being burnt in furnaces. Being included in 3 out of the 4 model pathways for decarbonisation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is clear experts trust its potential to offset carbon emissions.
However, BECCS is fatally flawed, at least for now. Its high land use makes it both inefficient and hard to scale up. Moreover, as crops will need to grow first for production to begin, it makes BECCS a long-term investment, possibly too much so for conventional “green investors” that poured $5.5 billion into the renewables market in 2023.
Permanently unconventional or nearing familiarity?
Overall, all of these unconventional energies have disadvantages, but for Europe to achieve its energy goals, these more modern renewable sources need to be utilized. Mainly, SMRs could accelerate the energy transition by providing remedies to intermittency issues in traditional renewables. Similarly, hydrogen can competently decarbonize straggling sectors like aviation and BECCS may be put in place in the longer term for its net-negative abilities.
Nevertheless, conventional renewables are not out of the picture anytime soon. As their costs per gigawatt hour undercut fossil fuels in 2020, they are unprecedentedly cheaper than all existing energy sources. The EU should still bank upon them in the shorter term, especially offshore wind which is the least disruptive to onshore land use.
Conventional Renewables: Undercutting fossil fuels and still falling
However, it does not mean European policymakers and citizens should be distrustful of sustainable energy breakthroughs, as people were in the past. Although no irrational hysteria seems to be present just yet, it would not be surprising for it to emerge as more unproven, revolutionary power sources edge closer to being considered by governments. Undoubtedly, if the EU does indeed act like a union, acting decisively to allocate funding toward these novel renewables, it could deliver a crushing blow to unconventional energy naysayers and its own carbon emissions.