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Renewable energy can power Europe whatever the weather

Wednesday, 1st August, 2018 4:56pm

New research has shown how long-term weather patterns affect wind and solar renewable energy technologies across Europe, finding that renewable energy will be a viable source of over a third of its energy needs in the future.

Using 30 years of meteorological data, the scientists, led by Corkman Seán Collins, have examined and modelled the impact of renewable energy on the electricity sector out to the year 2030.

Despite the unpredictable nature of wind and solar energy, the work suggests that the European power system can comfortably generate at least 35 per cent of its electricity using these renewables alone without major impacts on prices or system stability.

Wind and solar energy have grown in popularity across Europe in the last decade, quadrupling in use between 2007 and 2016. However, wind and solar energy are susceptible to fluctuating weather patterns, which meant that there were concerns as to how Europe’s energy supplies would be affected by long spells with low winds or overcast skies.

Researchers have used decades of historic weather data to model this variability in wind and solar energy and its effect on markets, but many studies only analyse data from one given year or focus solely on one country or small region.

This research analysed electricity system operation across Europe using wind and solar data spanning the 30 year period from 1985 to 2014.

By uncovering trends from this data trove across a vast, interconnected region, the team was able to model how Europe would fare under five different renewable energy scenarios with varying sustainability ambitions 12 years into the future. The breadth and depth of their data pool were key when it came to understanding trends in CO2 emissions, system costs, and system operation.

“When planning future power systems with higher levels of wind and solar generation, one year of weather data analysis is not sufficient,” said Seán Collins, a researcher at MaREI, the Marine and Renewable Energy Centre at UCC.

“We find that single-year studies could yield results that deviate by as much as nine per cent from the long-term average at a European level and even more at a country level. When there are legally binding targets on carbon emissions and the share of renewable energy, or promises to avoid sharp price hikes, this makes all the difference.”

By using multiple years to better understand the way other variables respond as wind and solar energy penetrate the market, Collins and his team found that CO2 emissions and total energy generation costs fluctuate wildly in future scenarios.

These can become up to five times more uncertain as weather-dependent resources gain greater traction in the market. However, they also found that Europe could withstand this variability quite well thanks to its close integration—their models estimate Europe could use renewables for more than two-thirds of its electricity by 2030, with more than one-third coming from wind and solar.

Collins and his team believe their models and data could be used to depict a variety of possible future scenarios to help policymakers better understand the reliability and impact of renewable energy, including the impacts of a shift to 100 per cent renewable electricity systems.

By making their models and data openly available, the researchers also hope that future work will demonstrate greater awareness of these long-term weather patterns in order to accurately depict a more renewable-energy-reliant world.

“For future policy developments to be robust and to capture the meteorological dependency of decarbonised energy systems, they should be based on open modelling analyses that utilise common long-term datasets,” said Collins.


—all of which are essential to the effective development of energy policy

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