EVs and the Renewable Electricity Conundrum, Part 1

02.20.23 | Blog | By:

Electricity is touted as the energy of the 21st century, at least as far as fighting climate change is concerned. All sectors scream for renewable electrons to support ambitious decarbonization strategies. When it comes to fueling the world, if coal is – well actually, will be – on a clear downslide, oil and gas do resist the peak in the very near future as projected by IEA in its 2022 World Energy Outlook, seems no telltale sign for a quick and massive replacement by low-carbon and renewables, even in our advanced economies.

Source: IEA

So, it is likely that electricity will remain for some time produced by fossil-based pathways, and not only because of the insufficient investment in renewable electricity production to start replacing existing fossil capacity. For the record, the last few years’ annual trillion of dollars spent on clean energy, which did show an acceleration in 2022, would have to be multiplied four-fold by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement objective, when, even with the help from Fit-for-55, IRA and other programs, is only expected to grow two-fold.

There is another basic reason for fossil, natural gas in the advanced economies to remain part of the electricity production system. The “new” renewables, wind and solar, are intermittent. And their capacity grows as we have shut down in Europe much baseload, read non-intermittent, capacity, such as nuclear plants and thermal power plants between 2005 and 2020. And hydropower does suffer from climate change, plagued by a more frequent lack of water; nuclear from technical glitches. No wonder we have seen the electricity price getting more volatile, even before the war in Ukraine, nearing 100 €/MWh already in 2021.

Source: Jacques Percebois, IFPEN, January 2023

Even more worrying, the renewable technology pipeline seems to be favoring solar PV, cheaper and easier to install than offshore wind generators, possibly seen as the home-based renewable energy for the multitude, to fuel your own EV, for instance.

Source: IEA

But climate change is again playing a dirty trick on solar PV in our latitudes. The sun shines much, much less in winter. We live under a lid of clouds for extended periods (ever read T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth”?). Solar PV electricity generation capacity, by nature low in the winter months, roughly 40% of the yearly average, drops even more to 20% on an overcast short day like those we’ve had in France in December 2022 and January 2023. Meaning the 22% market share of wind and solar in 2022 in the EU can be significantly less in the winter months inducing much more temporary reliance (broad brush, an additional 8%) on baseload, natural gas, thus an additional risk of price spikes, especially if the European pricing system, based on the cost of the marginal power plant, natural gas-fed, is maintained.

Sure, we can look across the Mediterranean Sea, where the sun more generously shines and transform renewable electricity in its magic storage proxy, hydrogen, to be shipped to Europe. This is a less mature value chain more costly anyway and there is less energy independence, trading an OPEC of oil for an “OHEC” of hydrogen.

We keep on reading about all-out electrification, with a consequence like doubling the electricity demand between now and 2050, a minimum that relies on serious frugality efforts by individuals and companies to materialize, an expectation that is contradicted by observations in the last thirty years. Isn’t it time for governments to step up and call for priorities in renewable electricity future usage, at least defining a doable ramp-up trajectory, using alternative and more secure solutions, like biofuels and biogas, as a bridge, a transition, toward the ideal solution?

In a world that rediscovers severe inflation, thanks to some deglobalization, renewed geopolitical risks, supply shocks like the energy transition cost, such caution is not procrastination. It may help prevent foreseeable insurrections by those who will realize they cannot anymore afford their basic need for electricity, like lighting or heating the house, their end-of-the-month fundamental objective, far, far away from the end-of-the-world predicted by the fear mongerers of climate change? And it may strengthen the public hand in R&D, rather than the “misdirected and chaotic array of private-sectors projects, which are funded by venture capital without direction”, a strong sentence from Mariana Mazzucato, one of the great voices in economics today, in a recent article on nuclear fusion, which, in my opinion, applies to renewable energy innovation at large.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email