TU Delft researchers develop model for green, energy independent Europe

News - 13 June 2022 - Webredactie Communication

Researchers from ETH Zurich and TU Delft have developed a model to generate hundreds of ways in which Europe’s energy system can become green and self-sufficient by 2050. They have made their results available on an interactive platform to provide a clearer picture of all the various options and their associated trade-offs. 

At present, Europe meets over half of its energy requirements through imports – largely in the form of fossil fuels such as oil and gas. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, it has now become clear that this dependency endangers not only the climate but also European security. 

Might Europe in the future be able to eliminate energy imports altogether? Could it meet its needs exclusively from its own, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power? A new study by ETH researcher Bryn Pickering, Francesco Lombardi and Stefan Pfenninger, his two co-authors from TU Delft, shows that this is possible. Using a modelling approach that explores alternative technology options and where they are best deployed, the study lists more than 400 cost-effective, carbon-free and self-sufficient European energy system designs.

Accelerating the energy transition

Record-breaking temperatures, extreme droughts, floods, melting sea ice, fierce winds: radical weather conditions are becoming more and more frequent and have a devastating effect on our lives. If we do nothing, our planet will become uninhabitable before we know it. It is with good reason that, during the Paris Climate Change Conference and the subsequent Climate Summit in Glasgow, almost all the countries in the world agreed to keep global warming below two degrees.

TU Delft has all the expertise in-house needed to play an important role in achieving this goal and accelerate the energy transition. With around a thousand energy scientists, TU Delft is one of the largest research institutes in Europe in this field. Our staff and students are inventors, designers, creators and implementors of innovation. Whether it be wind and solar energy, hydrogen, new synthetic fuels, or nuclear energy, we have it all in-house. From fundamental research to applied research and back again. All these activities are carried out in the characteristic TU Delft way: with our sleeves rolled up and ready to get stuck in. We cooperate with companies, policymakers, business developers and social scientists from all over Europe – in fact, from all over the world. The ultimate goal? A clean, safe and affordable future for us all.

‘It turns out that there is much more flexibility in how we achieve a green, independent energy system in Europe by 2050 than we once thought,’ Pickering explains. These system designs differ substantially in detail, but they all have one thing in common: they rely on a massive and rapid expansion of fluctuating renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power. The study does not include the option to top up the system with energy from stable, non-fluctuating fossil fuel sources, yet finds there to be sufficient flexibility in a raft of other technologies that convert, store and distribute energy.

An open-source energy model for Europe

To highlight the variety of options available, the researchers have developed a high-resolution model for Europe’s energy system, which they have made openly available. For different sectors and regions, this maps both demand for and supply of renewable energy produced with established and already commercially available technologies. Across an area covering 35 countries, the model consolidates fluctuating flows of power, heat, hydrogen, synthetic hydrocarbons and biofuels on an hourly basis over an entire year.

An open-source online platform lets decision-makers, industry analysts and researchers compare the many options available. To help manage fluctuating power output from wind and solar, platform users can vary their preferred system’s reliance on a range of flexible technologies and balancing mechanisms such as storage capacity, biofuels, intra-European energy distribution, and the electrification of transport and heat. ‘By varying these factors at will, users can visualise the complex relationships and associated trade-offs within the energy system,’ says Stefan Pfenninger, assistant professor at TU Delft and leader of the study team.

The publicly available visualization tool allows users to compare different options of a green and self-sufficient energy system.

Visualising trade-offs

A decision to restrict the use of biofuels, for example, necessitates a complete electrification of both heating and transportation, with electric vehicles being recharged at times of the day when sufficient electricity is available. 

Supposing, however, that it is only deemed feasible to electrify 50 percent of transportation, there would be a drastic increase in demand for synthetic fuels, generated from either biofuels or electrically-derived hydrogen. To cover this demand as cost-effectively as possible, synthetic fuels must then be produced primarily in countries where electricity is cheapest, such as in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Spain. This would concentrate power generation and synthetic fuel production in specific regions, meaning that a large proportion of European states would then have to import energy from elsewhere on the continent.   

Different options have very different implications for individual countries. For example, there are options that situate substantial hydrogen production capacity in the Netherlands, and others where the Netherlands imports most if its fuel, electricity, or both. 

Greater flexibility for regional scenarios

The model results also show a wide range of regional and continental options as to where renewable energy and synthetic fuels can be cost-effectively produced. In one conceivable scenario, a restriction on energy storage capacity and limited use of biofuels would require a major expansion of wind power and hydrogen production in the United Kingdom and Ireland. To distribute the produced electricity to the rest of Europe, transmission links would have to be greatly expanded (see figure below).

For each scenario, the interactive visualisation tool can be used to compare the energy and technology mix (left), regional distribution of hydrogen production (centre) and required increase in inter-regional power transmission lines.

The need for storage capacity and biofuel use could also be reduced by an expansion of solar power in southern Europe, provided that this is supplemented by wind power from elsewhere on the continent. This would mean that hydrogen production could be split between northern and southern hubs and power grid expansion could be more evenly distributed. ‘The ability to compare trade-offs between such alternatives within one consistent analysis framework is a key strength of our novel method,’ says Francesco Lombardi, co-author and creator of the underlying algorithm used.

A better understanding of potential energy futures

The model and online platform enable researchers and decision-makers to analyse more clearly the conditions determining the creation of a green and self-sufficient energy system for Europe, along with the various options and trade-offs involved. For example, it is now easier to assess both the advantages and disadvantages of concentrating energy generation in just a few regions, compared with a more even regional distribution.  

‘The basic assumptions of this model are subject to a number of uncertainties,’ Pickering says. ‘The 441 options are illustrative views of possible futures to help make decisions now, and should not be taken as predictions.’