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Understanding Europe’s energy security challenge via Chaos Theory

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To solve the clean energy equation, the EU needs to spend less time on butterflies and tornadoes and start focusing on the gaps in-between, writes Christopher Hawes.

In 1972 a distinguished mathematician and meteorologist named Edward Lorenz explained Chaos Theory to the scientific community using a question: “if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, could it set off a tornado in Texas?”

Half a century later, the secrets to ensuring European energy security may lie in a probing of Mr. Lorenz’ question. How frequently does the butterfly flap its wings? Where is the resulting energy stored? And how is it then transported to Texas?

The European Union has long sought to developa shared energy infrastructure that would rely on wind turbines in the North Sea during the winter and solar panels in the Mediterranean during the summer. This would not only reduce the bloc’s reliance on a single energy producer but would provide a solution to the intermittent supply of solar and wind power throughout the seasons.

Like Chaos Theory, however, the underlying mechanics are incredibly complex. Start with power generation. Unlike Lorenz’ butterfly, the wind is under no obligation to generate energy, and climate change may be making it less inclined to do so. Last year, Northern Europe experienced such a dramatic wind drought that the load factor—the ratio of output to the theoretical maximum–dropped by 13% in Germany and the UK, and 16% in the Czech Republic.

As well as storage technology, you also need to develop the infrastructure to transfer and trade renewable energy
Dr Kong Chyong, energy economist at Columbia University's Centre on Global Energy Policy
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An analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that average wind speeds across Europe are likely to drop by eight-to-ten percent because of climate change, increasing the variability of power generated from the EU’s northern states.

This variability is currently balanced using fossil fuels. B ut reaching net zero will require a different approach. There are two parts to this equation, explains Dr Kong Chyong, energy economist at Columbia University's Centre on Global Energy Policy. “The first is by developing the storage capacity to capture cheap electricity during periods of low demand and pump it into the grid when people need it.”

One way of doing this is storing excess energy in batteries, but their reliance on cobalt presents major supply chain risks as 70% of the world’s supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 80% is refined in China.

Another option is using excess electricity to produce hydrogen. The system is far from perfect, however. As much as 60% of the energy is lost between the chemical reaction necessary to produce hydrogen and burning the gas in the turbines. Nevertheless, countries across the European Union have already committed to investing at least €9.3 billionto improve the process and develop an “EU-wide hydrogen backbone.”

“As well as storage technology, you also need to develop the infrastructure to transfer and trade renewable energy,” explains Dr Chyong.

Europe already has the world’s most connected energy infrastructure, with more than 400 interconnectors modulating the transfer of electricity across borders. To ensure the bloc’s energy security, however, the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E) estimates the EU will need to double its interconnection capacity by 2030.

A tornado in Texas

When Edward Lorenz first modelled his theory, he found that a slight variation in the way the butterfly flapped its wings had a huge effect on the surrounding air pressure. The production distribution of energy was an incredibly sensitive equation. Chaotic.

But this is only half of the challenge for modern climate scientists.

While a tornado requires a fixed amount of energy to keep it spinning, people’s energy needs differ depending on the climate, the time of day, and their proximity to a power source.

A country such a Slovenia, where 45% of the population live in the country has entirely different energy requirements to a country such as the Netherlands where only 8% of the population live outside cities.

On top of this, each country is updating its energy infrastructure at different speeds, using different technologies and policies. These dislocations could create weak spots across the bloc’s energy infrastructure

A study published earlier this year found that most of America’s current ‘electrification pathways’ fail to factor in the seasonal fluctuations in energy demand for heating or cooling, relying instead on inefficient methods of electrification.

"Our research reveals the degree of fluctuation in building energy demand and the benefits of using extremely efficient heating technologies when electrifying buildings," said the study’s author Dr. Jonathan Buonocore. “Historically, this fluctuation in building energy demand has been managed largely by gas, oil, and wood, all of which can be stored throughout the year and used during the winter. Electrified buildings, and the electrical system that supports them, will have to provide this same service of providing reliable heating in winter.”

The comparison is not exact – The EU uses and produces a lot less energy than the US – but the same dynamics are at play. Fossil fuels provided three quarters of the heat and electricity used in buildings across the EU last year, and transitioning that to clean, renewable sources is essential if the continent is going to overcome seasonable variables.

Localized solutions, such as hybrid heat pumps, green hydrogen production via electrolysis, and coupling between low-carbon hydrogen and electricity networks will be the key to managing variability across the EU, explains Dr Chyong.

Yet implementation of these technologies has been incredibly slow. Heat pumps represented less than 10% of global heating equipment sales in 2021 despite now costing less than oil and gas heating in several countries.

If the EU cannot manage the variability of energydemand across the continent, no number of wind turbines can solve the clean energy equation. To make the numbers work, policy makers need to spend less time on butterflies and tornadoes and start focusing on the gaps in-between.