In a previous blog post, I discussed the European Union’s climate strategy that was presented in December 2018. This strategy will likely play a key role for the new European Commission that is to be installed within a month. In this post, I will elaborate on the envisioned energy system transformation. The strategy document counts just 25 pages, but it is supported by an in-depth analysis of nearly 400 pages, including a lot of quantification of the underlying scenarios.

It is instructive to have a look at final energy use – the energy that is delivered to final consumers, e.g. in transportation, buildings and industry. The expected development of final energy is depicted in the following graph. Two scenarios are sketched for 2050: 1.5TECH and 1.5LIFE. Both are compatible with the target of climate neutrality by 2050.

Final energy use in the European Union: historic data for 2000 and 2015, a current policy scenario for 2030 and two climate-neutral scenarios for 2050. Data source: In-depth analysis, Figure 20.

What do we see in these climate neutral scenarios? First, a sharp drop in total final energy use. This is on the one hand a reflection of the energy efficiency ambitions of the European Commission. On the other hand, it is a by-product of a shift to electricity, which is a key element in these scenarios. Most climate change mitigation scenarios have an increased share of electricity in final energy use, much higher than the shares of around 20% nowadays. However, the share of electricity in final energy use of 50% in these EU scenarios is in the high end of the range reported by the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C [1].

Most surprising is the role foreseen for hydrogen and other synthetic fuels. Hydrogen is good for 10% of final energy use, e-gas takes 7%, and e-liquids represent 3 – 6% of final energy use. E-gas is gas derived from electricity, and is similar to natural gas. For example, methane produced from hydrogen based on electricity from solar or wind resources. E-liquids are similar to conventional crude-oil-derived liquid fuels, but again produced from renewable sources. Together, these synthetic fuels, including hydrogen, would cover about 20% of final energy use.

What are all these fuels used for? That is presented in the following graph for the 1.5TECH scenario (the 1.5LIFE scenario differs slightly, especially the use of e-liquids is lower). The new fuels are used in all sectors, but preferably in sectors in which they resemble the original fuels: e-liquids for transportation, e-gas for the buildings sector. This makes life easy for the final consumer. As I already set out in my previous blog post, the strategy strives for maximum acceptability; this again represents that tendency.

The use of synthetic fuels by sector in the 1.5TECH scenario. Data source: In-depth analysis, Figure 34.

We discussed where the new fuels will go, but where will they come from? Limited attention is paid to this question in the in-depth analysis (section Renewable electricity is considered to be the most important source of hydrogen, with maybe also a role for nuclear energy. To produce e-gas and e-liquids from hydrogen, carbon is required. Two potential carbon sources are mentioned: direct air capture and biomass. However, direct air capture of CO2 is (still) very expensive. And if one would use biomass as a carbon source, wouldn’t there be simpler ways to turn the biomass into fuels? So, these fuels will indeed be hassle-free for the final consumer, but there may be a price associated with them. A price that will ultimately be paid by that same final consumer.

What is also striking in this graph is the limited use of hydrogen in the power sector: only a little bit is needed for back-up power generation. This indeed seems to be possible if enough other flexibility options are in place, like grid expansion, heat storage, demand response, and vehicle-to-grid.

The production of hydrogen and e-gas requires a substantial amount of electricity, on top of what is already needed for final use. A rough calculation [2] shows that this amount is 6.1 – 6.7 EJ. Together with the growth in final electricity use, this requires about a doubling of total electricity generation from 2015 to 2050. This growth is not extreme, just 2% per year. The challenge will rather be the complete overhaul of the production system with a dominant role for intermittent solar and wind energy.

The scenarios behind the strategy show a bold picture of the energy system transformation. They build further on recent developments, but the limited timeframe and the technological challenges definitely make this an exciting vision to pursue.

Postscript. Good to know that Delft University of Technology is working on the production of feedstocks and fuels out of electricity. In fact, e-Refinery is one the four main research lines in energy. Meet the key researchers here.

[1] See Figure 2.14 in Chapter 2 of the IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”: Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fifita, P. Forster, V. Ginzburg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, E. Kriegler, L. Mundaca, R. Séférian, and M.V. Vilariño, 2018: Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development.

[2] Assuming that the conversion efficiency of electricity to hydrogen will grow to 80%, and the conversion efficiency of electricity to e-gas will grow to 60%. It is assumed that e-liquids will be produced elsewhere, as they can be easily transported.