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Going beyond 2020 - 100 Percent Renewable Energy for the European Union by 2050

bridges vol. 27, October 2010 / Feature Articles

By Christine Lins

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re_-_think_2050.jpg Since the European Union successfully adopted its climate and energy package, which includes binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and for increasing the share of renewable energy by 2020, policy makers, NGOs, scientists, and industry are looking further into the future. Even though 2050 is four decades ahead, it is already on the European Union´s (EU) policy agenda. Meanwhile, the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), with the aim of getting Europe onto a sustainable energy track, has recently launched its new major study RE-thinking 2050, outlining a pathway for the EU to switch to a 100 percent renewable energy supply for electricity, heating, and cooling, as well as for transport. RE-thinking 2050 presents a 100 percent renewable energy system for the EU, examining the effects on Europe's energy supply system and on CO2 emissions, while at the same time portraying the economic, environmental, and social benefits of such a system. Moreover, the report provides policy recommendations for what is needed to fully exploit the EU´s vast renewable energy potential.  

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Europe's demand for energy is increasing in an environment of high and unstable energy prices. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and the energy sector is one of the main emitters of greenhouse gases. Natural reserves of fossil fuels such as oil and gas are concentrated in just a few supplier countries around the world. Climate change, along with increasing dependency on energy imports, is only one of the risks the European economy faces today.

Inertia is not a solution in the face of these challenges, and the answer is not beyond our reach.  The solution, in fact, lies in our hands and, with it, our ability to change the future. By switching from fossil fuels - greenhouse gas-intensive sources of energy - to renewable sources of energy, Europe will be able to fully grasp its sustainable potential in economic, ecologic, and social terms.

Significantly increasing energy efficiency and deploying renewable energy technologies is the most promising effort we can make to mitigate man-made climate change and reduce hazardous pollution, enhance local and regional energy independence, stimulate world-class high-tech industries, and create thousands of new jobs, not least in rural and remote areas.

RE - thinking 2050 in a nutshell

RE-thinking 2050 outlines how the different renewable energy technologies will be able to contribute to generating all needed energy services in the fields of electricity, heating and cooling, and transport, while avoiding significant amounts of fuel costs and reducing energy-related CO2 emissions by more than 90 percent in 2050 - and at the same time creating more than 6 million jobs! RE-thinking 2050 outlines how higher up-front investment for renewable energy pays off in the long run, as the capital investment costs will be outweighed by the avoided costs of fossil fuels and CO2.

Contribution of Renewable Energy Technologies to Final Energy Consumption (Mtoe)

In terms of energy output and contribution to final energy, the largest increase towards 2050 is predicted to be renewable electricity - in particular for pure power options such as wind and Solar Photovoltaics (PV) . Renewable electricity's share in total final energy demand will increase from 10 percent in 2020 to 18 percent in 2030, and finally to 41 percent by 2050. Moreover, the share of renewable energy in the electricity sector will reach 65 percent and 100 percent in 2030 and 2050, respectively.

As a sector, heating and cooling constitutes the largest proportion of final energy demand. The renewable heating and cooling market, comprising residential and industrial biomass as well as solar thermal and geothermal applications, is predicted to take off fast. Together, renewable heating & cooling technologies will hold a share of about 21 percent and 45 percent of total final energy consumption in 2030 and 2050, respectively. However, looking purely into the heating and cooling market, renewable energy will make up 28 percent by 2020, 52 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.

In terms of growth rate, renewable energy can look forward to a significant increase in the transport sector, especially in the post-2020 years when advanced conversion technologies such as lignocellulosic bioethanol are ready to enter the market on a significant scale. The share of biofuels in overall final energy consumption will increase from 3 percent by 2020 to 4 percent by 2030. In 2050 the share is likely to account for 10 percent of overall final energy consumption.  The share of renewable energy in total transport fuel demand is expected to reach about 12 percent by 2030 and approximately 70 percent by 2050.  A steep decrease in transport fuel demand is assumed between 2030 and 2050, due to a modal shift of both passenger and freight transport to less energy-intensive public transport such as bus and rail, as well as the electrification of the road transport sector.  

The CO2 costs avoided in 2050 due to deployment of renewable energy technologies already outweigh the cumulative investment of €2,800 billion needed to reach 100 percent renewable energy in 2050. The economic benefit of investing in renewable energy would therefore amount to €1,000 billion (or €1 trillion). When taking into account the avoided fossil fuel costs, the economic benefit increases to €2090 billion (€2.1 trillion) in 2050. Therefore, higher up-front investment needs certainly do pay off in the long run, and for society at large.

Renewable energy provides an amount of energy equivalent to the consumption of 50 million Europeans, a number that will increase to about 130 million in 2020 and over 218 million in 2030. In line with the two different 2050 scenarios analyzed in RE-thinking 2050, all EU citizens will be provided with renewable energy by 2050 at the latest.

Number of EU Citizens Provided With RES (2010-2050)

In addition, making the EU 100 percent renewables-based will result in major social benefits - not least in relation to creating jobs. Assuming that the pathway set out in RE-thinking 2050 is followed, the renewable energy sector in the EU will employ a total of more than 2.7 million people in 2020 and about 4.4 million in 2030. EREC expects that, by 2050, employment in the renewable energy sector will put 6.1 million people to work.

Gross Employment in the Renewable Energy Sector (2020-2030-2050)


With the 2009 agreement on the Directive on the promotion of renewable energy sources, and its binding target of at least 20 percent renewable energy in final energy consumption by 2020, the EU has made a strong and ambitious commitment towards renewable energy. Europe is moving in the right direction, however it needs to continue and to accelerate the needed transformation of its energy system through continuous and stable commitments and policy frameworks. Harnessing the EU´s energy efficiency potential and fully deploying its sustainable, indigenous, renewable energy resources are vital and the only way to go forward.

This decade is a decade of decisions. The decisions made today will have an impact on the 40 years to come. It is now time to decide whether to continue the polluting energy pathway of the past or to progress to one based on clean, sustainable, and locally available renewable energy sources.

As RE-thinking 2050 clearly outlines, it is not a matter of availability of technologies. Renewable energy technologies are available, reliable, and capable of providing all energy services from transport solutions to heating and cooling, as well as electricity generation. It is a matter of political will and of setting the course today for a sustainable energy future tomorrow.

A 100 percent renewable energy supply for Europe will require extensive changes in terms of energy production and consumption as well as concerted efforts at all levels - local, regional, national, and European. Apart from the manifold social, economic, and environmental benefits of such a paradigm shift, renewable energy can become the driving force and uniting element of the European ambition. As much as the coal and steel production provided the common foundation necessary for the federation of European states in 1957, a new energy policy, one of 100 percent renewable energy in 2050, would be the new federating pillar of the European Union in the 21st century.

The full version of RE-thinking 2050 can be downloaded from the following Web site: www.rethinking2050.eu

The author, Christine Lins, is Secretary General of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC). EREC is the umbrella organization of the major European renewable energy industry, trade and research associations active in the field of photovoltaics, small hydropower, solar thermal, bioenergy, ocean, geothermal, wind energy, and solar thermal electricity. It represents an industry with an annual turnover of more than €70 billion and more than 550,000 employees.


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