A fully decarbonised Europe would “probably not” be able to generate enough clean electricity to power itself in winter and may have to import solar and wind energy from places such as northern Siberia, the Middle East and North Africa, according to one of the continent’s most senior grid technology executives.

Gerhard Salge, chief technology officer at leading power-technology provider Hitachi ABB Power Grids, tells Recharge that by 2050, when the EU is set to reach net-zero emissions, electricity demand in Europe will have more than doubled due to the widespread electrification of transport and heating. This will require 20-40 times more renewable energy capacity than is installed today, and if not interconnected, thousands of times the current level of energy storage, he adds.

Salge explains that local distribution grids will probably be able to manage the increased electricity demand from electric vehicles (EVs), “with maybe some demand response management and some specific improvements”.

“But if [electrified] heating comes on the top that, then the distribution grids really get into a challenge,” he says. “So then, of course, you need to ask yourself, what is the alternative?”

Supplying homes and businesses with clean hydrogen for heating would be “extremely costly” because it would require “massive investment” in gas networks, which were not built to handle the smaller, less energy-dense H2 molecules, plus there are many “unknowns” in building out massive hydrogen infrastructure, Salge explains.

“There are always exceptions, but as a general trend, it’s probably easier and less costly to scale up the existing electric infrastructure, rather than scaling up an additional hydrogen infrastructure.”

However, providing enough renewable power from within Europe’s borders to meet this increased electricity demand in winter would “probably not” be possible, he says.

“Europe definitely needs to import renewable energy. Whether [sourcing power] from Arctic winds in Russia is more realistic, or the sun in North Africa, or a hydrogen tanker pipeline from somewhere else is yet to be decided.

Would it not be better to store Europe’s excess solar power in the summer as green hydrogen, and then use that as an energy source in winter, as many industry experts have suggested?

“It would be cheaper and more cost effective to import electricity into Europe in the winter from the sun [ie, solar power] in the Middle East,” Salge replies.

“Now, if you don’t want to rely on that because you want to build buffers, you can do it with hydrogen, but it will be more expensive because of the low [round-trip] efficiency [of about 35%], more complicated transport chain.

“So you always have this balance — the more you trust in interconnectors, the more effective you are.”

Salge explains that the Arctic winds in northern Siberia “are a fantastic source of wind energy — permanent, constant winds blowing in a strong way”.

“We could make long-distance HVDC [high-voltage direct-current] interconnection into Europe and China from there, and then get a full renewable base supply. Same is valid, of course, for solar-rich regions such as northern Africa or the Middle East.”

He does not, however, rule out the use of hydrogen as an important complementary future energy carrier.

“No doubt we will see tankers or pipelines in the future with hydrogen coming into Europe, coming from other areas. I’m just saying let’s not put the first priority on that because then we are not creating the most cost-effective solution. Let’s take it as the fallback if we reach other boundary conditions in direct electrification.”

Grid upgrades required

Handling a far larger supply of variable renewable energy in the coming decades would require hundreds of billions of euros’ worth of transmission and distribution grid upgrades, including digitalisation and the use of artificial intelligence (see panel below), as well as widespread demand response and possibly a “few thousand” times more energy storage capacity than has been installed to date, Salge says.

Governments, grid operators, utilities and investors have so far been “afraid” to begin investment in the required grid upgrades, Salge says, due to the scale of the investment needed.

But he believes that they have failed to appreciate the business opportunities and future income from improved grids.

His attitude to the massive cost of network upgrades is “so what? — afterwards there will be double the amount of electricity flowing”, which would hugely increase revenues.

“I drive an electric vehicle. All the money that I had been spending at filling stations, I now transfer into the bank account of the utility,” Salge explains. “People tend to forget that. They only see the investment, but they don’t always see to the same extent the revenue flow that follows the investment… and the benefit which society gets.

“If we are serious about the [2050] carbon-neutral target, we need to do significantly more than we have done so far and really prepare the ground to incentivise grid investments in the right way. Then, if the framework conditions are in place, technology will not be the bottleneck.”

He continues: “The key roadblock at the moment is not technology. The key roadblock for acceleration towards carbon neutrality is the regulatory environment, is the political framework and willingness to make really bold and courageous decisions where maybe [such decisions] might not be the best one in retrospect.

“But it’s better to make them and try things in a really bold way, rather to just make incremental, overly cautious, conservative [progress], then we have no chance [of hitting net zero by 2050].”

Artificial intelligence’s learning curve

Salge explains that while the artificial-intelligence — or machine-learning — software required to manage the complex, renewables-based grid of the future has already been developed, that doesn’t mean it will be very smart at first.

“The basic algorithms are there, but fine-tuning and learning on the job needs to be done.

“Machine learning needs training, and that can only be done using data. And there is nearly no data available on the future grid. So you need to learn and improve and install at the same time.”

He adds: “Look at Google and Amazon — they didn’t start with the algorithms that they have now. With more and more customers, and with more and more applications, they fine-tune and complement it. That’s the same logic where we have to go with the evolving grid.”