Europe's Weather-dependent Electricity Systems Will Withstand Climate Change

New research suggests Europe's grid will continue after the rest of the world falls apart.

Countries living with a high capacity for wind and solar energy will be able to continue to provide electricity to its citizens despite the effects of climate change, a new study has shown. Scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark studying the effects of climate change on weather-dependent electricity systems looked at present and future European climates to determine their findings.

The research team developed models that predict the electricity output from solar and wind systems for all European countries under the most common global warming scenarios through the year 2100. "Most other energy system studies assume a number of technologies and seek to combine them in a cost-optimal way to cover the demand," says Smail Kozarcanin, a Ph.D. fellow in the Department of Engineering and the first author of the study. "In this study, we seek to understand, for example, how climate change affects the system independent of which technologies are used to cover the demand that remains unmet by wind and solar. To the best of our knowledge, this technology-independent focus in combination with high-resolution data on climate change projections is unique to our study."

Future weather conditions no problem

Despite extreme weather conditions being predicted in a climate change-affected world, the scientists didn't find large differences in the key metrics for renewable electrical systems. The findings suggest that systems designed for historical weather conditions will be able to withstand future extreme weather events.

This is because the system are designed for extreme events, just less frequent ones. The study also suggest that the European demand for electrified heating and cooling will lower, as the climate warms.

Currently, the demand for air conditioning is much less than that for heating at European latitudes. This dip in demand will counterbalance the slight decrease in wind and solar energy output their models predict.

Most systems will not be affected by climate change

"Extreme weather might require changes to the renewable generators and other parts of the system," says Kozarcanin. "For example, future wind turbines may require new types of storm protection and solar panels could need protection against super hailstorms. But our study shows that large-scale infrastructure choices, such as back-up power plant capacity, are relatively unaffected by the level of climate change."

The current system does need some small tweaks to continue to operate into a climate change future though, the researchers say; the massive interconnected electrical system spanning 24 countries across Central Europe will need a boost to effectively transmit renewable energy between nations.

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"The main challenge for future grids will most likely be political and societal will to make the investments and proper planning for a grid topology that provides most of the potential benefit from smoothing renewable energy production between countries," says Kozarcanin. Despite the new weather extremes predicted by future climate scenarios, the study didn't find a large difference in the key metrics for renewable electrical systems, suggesting that system designs based on historical weather should perform similarly in future climates.

Kozarcanin and his colleagues believe this is because current systems are designed to withstand extreme weather events—they simply don't have to withstand them now as often as they will in the future. The team also notes that European demand for electrified heating and cooling will actually dip slightly as the climate warms. This relaxed demand will counterbalance the slight decrease in wind and solar energy output their models predict.

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