Countries are closing reliable nuclear and fossil-fuelled power stations while hoping interconnectors – cables linking different grids – will make up the deficit. But they won’t, according to the paper’s author, Alexander Stahel, a Swiss-based commodities expert.
He explains that the European grid has relied on French and German power surpluses for many years. However, with nuclear power in both countries being wound down and the two likely to soon become net power importers – and with fierce international competition for scarce gas supplies – the whole continent is now left hoping for Scandinavian hydro power and occasional surpluses of UK wind to save it.
According to Stahel, the numbers just don’t add up, and he warns that restrictions on fossil fuel investment are making things dramatically worse.
‘Fossil fuels are currently vital for keeping the lights on, but we are undermining the industry’s viability,’ he says. ‘It needs 300billion US dollars of re-investment every year, for oil and gas alone, just to maintain current production levels.
‘However, convinced by policymakers that investments in production will become “stranded”, it is not even investing half this amount.’
Stahel says Europe must simply accept that its decarbonisation targets are not achievable.
The European electricity grid, he writes, is a modern miracle – the largest synchronous electrical grid (by connected power) in the world. It interconnects 520million end consumers in 32 countries, including several that are not EU members, such as Morocco and Turkey. Most importantly, ‘it is built on physics, not ideology’.
The generation of alternating current that flows through the grid must match consumption, because electricity largely cannot be stored. This simple fact is critical, says Stahel, for understanding the problem that faces it.
‘In order to ensure that supply meets demand across Europe, electrical load is constantly being forecast, in blocks as short as 15 minutes long, and thousands of generators bid to meet that demand.
‘The network frequency is the key measure of the health of the grid. Measured locally, but of supra-regional significance, it is the first indicator of an imbalance between supply and demand.
‘It must be kept within very narrow bounds; a failure to do so would lead to damage to infrastructure or even the complete shutdown of the system. Frequency deviations – incidents – happen for many reasons, but have become more common as the share of wind and solar on the grid has increased.
‘Renewables are not dispatchable – their output cannot be increased minute to minute to meet a shortage of supply – so from a grid perspective they are unreliable. The impact of their widespread deployment is clear from the fact that frequency incidents have increased from 33 hours in 2020 to over 52 hours in 2021, an increase of more than 50 per cent in just one year.
‘In 2021 alone, the European grid had two major (Scale 2) incidents, for which final explanatory reports had to be prepared by an expert panel at the grid operator, Entso-e (European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity). The underlying issue is that the European grid is increasingly unable to supply enough power to meet demand.’
A few countries, he notes, are particularly problematic.
Italy is by far the worst offender, having closed its nuclear power stations in the 1990s, building only a few onshore wind farms and none offshore at all, and therefore now having an almost complete reliance on natural gas, for which it has failed to secure a reliable supply.
Austria has a mix of hydro and natural gas, but relies on Germany to balance the books. It appears to have escaped the notice of the country’s leaders that Germany has been engaged on the Energiewende– a shift to renewables and away from nuclear power and fossil fuels – for the last 20 years.
Hungary relies on Russian supplies of natural gas to fuel its electricity grid.
Slovakia and Finland have at least managed to bring some new nuclear power onstream, but it has been hard and expensive and the process is yet to be completed.
The Netherlands relies on natural gas, and the country is sitting on the massive Groningen gas field. But the Dutch have decided to phase out production there, leaving themselves at the mercy of international LNG (liquefied natural gas) markets.
Stahel identifies four major short-term issues, and one gigantic structural long-term problem, all of which should alarm policymakers across the continent.
But the problem is the policymakers themselves – ‘the handful of people in positions of power who have committed us to a dramatic reduction of our carbon dioxide emissions’, and the European Commission, which has transformed these commitments into a legal requirement to reduce emissions by 55 per cent from 1990 levels before 2030 – the so-called ‘Fit for 55’ laws, setting in motion a change to society of a scale that is hard to comprehend.