The hunt for green electrons to reach carbon neutrality

This is the third installment of the Topic of the Month on security of supply

One of the elements within the idea of the Green Deal is that Europe has to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 while strategically becoming more independent of energy import. In EU27, the final annual energy and feedstock consumption is roughly 13.000 TWh (including marine bunkers and aviation fuel) (all energy values are given per year), more than half of it (7128 TWh) being fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas), almost all of it being imported. Electricity only accounts for 21 % (2485 TWh) of the final consumption. 37 % of the electricity is supplied from renewable resources (953 TWh).

How can carbon neutrality be reached by 2050? Can we do that by harvesting all of the energy locally? Let us have a look at an important intermediate stage: the -55% greenhouse gas target to be reached by 2030.

The laws of thermodynamics, the physical laws that rule energy systems, are clear: each time the nature of the energy is changed from one vector into another (electricity into hydrogen, for example) a significant amount of the original energy is lost. The EU has taken this as the basis of the overall approach for the climate-neutral energy system:

  1. Energy efficiency first, including the circular economy and the use of waste heat.
  2. Then the electrification of those applications where this is credible in terms of cost-efficiency and technology.
  3. If the first and the second approach prove not feasible, sustainable fuels will have to be used (amongst them hydrogen).

As wind and PV directly generate electricity, this locally harvested energy should be used directly whenever possible for given energy service. Then the energy used for a given application is reduced drastically. Energy services that cannot be electrified need to be fueled by sustainable fuels, biofuels, low carbon hydrogen as well as e-fuels based on green hydrogen.

To decarbonize around 65% of the present EU-27 electricity use by 2030, 1,615 TWh of green electricity supply will be needed. Based on the NECPs, we estimate the EU-27 output of wind and PV by 2030 at around 1,150 TWh , adding hydro and geothermal, we get to 1,477 TWh. Therefore, supplying 65% of current electricity demand (1,615 TWh) from renewable electricity by 2030 may be considered ambitious but feasible.

This does not take into account the additional expected demand for electrifying other sectors.

We have undertaken a high-level sector-based analysis of expected additional electricity demand (two papers as reference)[1]. In particular, we have assessed the electricity needed to decarbonize the transport, buildings and service sectors, and industry, on the basis of the end-uses that can be technically and cost-effectively electrified. We assume that no extra energy services (e.g. more person-km transport or square meter office space) will be demanded.

For ground transport, let us assume that all applications of road and rail internal combustion engines can eventually be electrified. In that case, the extra renewable electricity to be supplied will be in the range of 1,053 to 1,263 TWh, while currently almost 3,300 TWh of fuel is used. The electrification of road transport implies an enormous gain in energy efficiency. The potential for direct electrification for aviation and shipping is limited and synthetic fuels/biofuels will be required. Therefore, we estimate the renewable electricity demand by 2050 for decarbonizing aviation and shipping at least 1,490 TWh when using hydrogen directly. If more appropriate fuels (ammonia, methanol, methane, e-diesel, e-kerosine) are used, the overall conversion efficiency will be lower and the amount of renewable electricity required higher.

In buildings, in order to stay in line with EU ambitions, roughly three-quarters of the energy demand should be saved through renovation (2,196 TWh). The fossil-based portion should be decarbonized using heat pumps, requiring an electricity demand of 216 TWh.

To a significant extent, regarding heating applications within industrial processes, fossil fuels could theoretically be substituted by direct electrification. The fossil fuel based feedstock needs to be delivered from carbon-neutral sources (e-fuels or biofuels). Overall, industrial electricity demand is therefore going to increase substantially between 2020 and 2050, with a minimum of 500 TWh, but most probably double that.

Seen in this light, zit becomes clear that there is little room by 2030 for supplying the additional renewable electricity demand due to the electrification of road transport (458 TWh for 40% electric vehicles and 20% trucks), the heating of buildings (108 TWh for 50% renovation and heating by heat pumps), not even including the electrification of industry and the electricity demand for producing synthetic fuels – including hydrogen.

Given the fact that green electrons will be scarce, they should therefore be considered to be valuable.

Three main actions need to be considered by 2030:

  • A significant increase in ambition for renewable electricity supply is required. However, producing all of the above with electric energy in the EU-27 will be hard.

Applications where electrification brings an enormous gain in efficiency, such as passenger transport or low-temperature heating both in building and industry, should be prioritised.

  • In terms of producing hydrogen, there is a strong GHG value in achieving the Commission’s target of substituting ‘grey’ hydrogen demand used as feedstock by 2030. Using renewable electricity to do so would add around 400 TWh p.a. to produce the 8 MT of grey hydrogen currently consumed in the EU. Given the direct demand for green electricity by other applications, other routes towards lower carbon hydrogen should be preferred (CCS or import).
  • Towards 2050 and full carbon neutrality, both import of carbon neutral fuels and electricity will be needed.


Working paper

Policy brief






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