How Should Europe Decarbonize? Depends Who You Ask

The EU wants to become a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by
2050. And that’s pretty much where the consensus stops.

A number of pathways have been proposed for reaching
“climate-neutrality,” but a close look reveals
sizable�discrepancies between them.

The EU’s own new strategy
 for decarbonizing its energy system
draws largely from European Commission projections from
 predicting that in 2050 more than 80 percent of the
electricity supply will come from renewables and 15 percent from

The EU’s projection does not provide a breakdown of renewables
technologies, but the topline 80 percent figure is roughly
consistent with several other high-profile decarbonization pathways
put forward by various groups. For example: 

  • The European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050,
    published over a decade ago, forecast an annual grid supply made up
    of 80 percent renewables, 10 percent nuclear and 10 percent fossil
  • Shell’s much-discussed Sky
     from 2018, which charts a path to meeting the goals of
    the Paris Agreement, forecasts nuclear and fossil fuels
    each accounting for roughly 11 percent of Europe’s mix in
  • WindEurope’s Breaking
    New Ground
    study, also from 2018, estimates renewables will
    make up 78 percent of the mix, compared to 17 percent natural gas
    and 5 percent nuclear power.
  • A 95 percent
    decarbonization pathway
    shared in March this year by
    Eurelectric, the European electricity industry union, predicted 13
    percent nuclear and 6 percent fossil fuel.

But several other high-profile projections offer up strikingly
divergent numbers for the approximately 7,000 terawatt-hours a year
of power Europe is expected to need in 2050.

  • A 2018 study
    by the consultancy firm Pöyry (now renamed Afry)
    estimated that fossil fuels would make up roughly 5 percent of the
    mix and nuclear around 4 percent.
  • A “moderate” pathway advanced
    by SolarPower Europe
     and published in April 2020 forecast
    almost no nuclear or fossil fuel in the mix on an annual

Even where there’s more or less consensus on the portion of the
mix that will come from renewables, there is little agreement over
the breakdown of solar and wind in the mix. 

Eurelectric believes wind could make up half of Europe’s 2050
generation mix, while Shell’s Sky scenario puts wind’s contribution
at 28 percent. The amount of generation from what is termed “other
renewables,” such as hydro and biomass, varies from 5 percent in
SolarPower Europe’s model — a significant drop from today’s
contribution â€” to around 27 percent in WindEurope’s

The founder and chairman of development company Mainstream
Renewable Power, Eddie O’Connor, believes Europe’s generation
mix will ultimately tilt toward offshore wind because of the high
capacity factors it could offer.

“Solar has a capacity factor of around 30 percent and offshore
wind will have 50 percent,†O’Connor said in an interview. “You
could have 900,000 megawatts of wind and 900,000 megawatts of
solar, and you would end up with a mix of 60 percent wind and 40
percent solar.† 

Pay attention to who is doing the forecasting

One reason for the significant differences in the models is that
many have been proposed by organizations with a vested interest in
backing a particular generation technology.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the SolarPower
Europe study, which in its moderate pathway gives solar a 61
percent share of the annual generation mix in 2050 â€” more than
twice the amount of solar predicted by the forecasts advanced by
the European Climate Foundation, Afry, WindEurope and

Similarly, it is not surprising that Shell’s Sky scenario
contains one of the highest contributions from fossil fuels of any
of the models surveyed — although WindEurope’s 17 percent level
for gas is the most fossil-fuel-intensive projection of all.

Green hydrogen is now WindEurope’s gas of choice, said Christoph
Zipf, WindEurope’s press and communications manager. â€œIn some
hard-to-abate sectors, like heavy-duty transport, we see a role for
gases, namely hydrogen.”

It’s critical to take the interests of advocacy groups into
consideration when assessing the validity of potential pathways,
said Andy Bradley, director of the consultancy Delta Energy &

One common theme in many of the roadmaps is the need to connect
European electricity markets so that solar produced in the southern
member states can complement wind power from the north.

Bradley noted that different countries and regions will see very
different technology mixes. â€œThere will be common technologies
across most markets, but there will be big differences due to local
resource availability and consumption patterns, and the way they
are combined to produce an optimum solution should vary according
to location.â€

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
How Should Europe Decarbonize? Depends Who You Ask