Europe’s power grid will survive climate change. The US, not so much


Modelling shows big European investment in renewables will deliver long-term stability. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


A strong electricity generating network dominated by renewables will be capable of surviving weather extremes.

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In the United States, while the administration of President Donald Trump engages in nominating a fervent climate-change denier to head a new “presidential committee on climate security”, indicating a cavalier attitude to looming international alarm, a team of scientists from Denmark’s Aarhus University have determined that come what may, European countries with well-planned renewable energy systems will be able to keep the electricity flowing.

The research, published in the journal Joule, suggests that electricity systems comprising large-scale, balanced components of wind and solar generation should work well in European climates, despite changing weather patterns.

“Extreme weather might require changes to the renewable generators and other parts of the system,” says lead author Smail Kozarcanin.

“For example, future wind turbines may require new types of storm protection, and solar panels could need protection against super hailstorms. But our study shows that large-scale infrastructure choices, such as back-up power plant capacity, are relatively unaffected by the level of climate change.”

Electricity production from renewables is rising, driven in part by significant technology developments, the study says. The researchers felt it was relevant to investigate to what extent these “highly weather-dependent electricity systems” will be affected by the changing climate.

They used data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to develop models that predict wind turbine and solar panel output for 30 European countries under the most common global warming scenarios, looking at the years from 2006 to 2100.

To check how a European weather-dependent electrical grid performs in these projections, compared to how it functioned historically, the scientists selected five key metrics, which measure the most important aspects of a large-scale renewable-heavy electricity system, and are abstract enough to be used to draw general conclusions without focusing on a specific technology mix.

They looked at the need and the capacity for dispatchable electricity (that is, on-demand electricity that can be made available at the request of power grid operators); the benefits of electrical transmission; the benefits of electrical storage; and the variability of electricity production and consumption.

“In this study, we seek to understand, for example, how climate change affects the system, independent of which technologies are used to cover the demand that remains unmet by wind and solar,” Kozarcanin says.

The research indicates that renewable electrical system designs based on historical weather should perform similarly in future climates.

Kozarcanin and colleagues believe this is because current systems are already designed to manage in extreme weather events, even if they don't have to withstand them now as often as they will in the future.

The report also says that demand for electrified heating and cooling will dip slightly as the climate changes, because the need for heating will diminish while the demand with for air-conditioning will only moderately rise.

One of the main shortfalls, the scientists find, is in the European electrical grid, because although many countries have well-developed transmission capabilities, the interconnected system linking countries across central Europe will need a boost to effectively transmit renewable energy between nations.

“The main challenge for future grids will most likely be political and societal will to make the investments and proper planning for a grid topology that provides most of the potential benefit from smoothing renewable energy production between countries,” Kozarcanin says.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-climate-denier-global-warming-committee-scientists-react-1339203
  2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2019.02.001
  3. https://www.ipcc.ch/
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