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We have a decarbonised electricity grid!

Mar 22, 2023

Guilherme Cardoso, Nuclear Technology Advisor, nucleareurope

The European Commission has finally, (and perhaps unintentionally) defined what a decarbonised electricity grid is by setting a maximum limit of carbon emissions per unit of power generated in order for a grid to be considered clean/ green/environmentally friendly (or whatever else you may want to call it).

This cap comes in the form of a criteria according to which a Member State no longer needs to respect the so-called ‘additionality rule’ when it wants to produce renewable hydrogen. The ‘additionality rule’ basically means that, in order for renewable hydrogen to count towards meeting the targets set by the European Union (20 million tonnes, 10 tonnes produced in the Union and 10 tonnes imported), facilities built less than 36 months ago must produce an equivalent amount of renewable energy. This is to ensure that renewable energy is not redirected from the grid for other purposes (such as hydrogen production) as this would make it more difficult to meet the grid decarbonisation targets.

This limit imposed by the Commission is 64 grams of CO2 for every kWh of electricity used for hydrogen production. To get an idea of what this figure means, in 2021 the EU average for the EU was 275gCO2/KWh according to the European Environment Agency. By comparison, Germany stands at 402gCO2/KWh, Portugal (which claims to be very green) at 220gCO2/KWh, Estonia at 946gCO2/KWh (!) and Sweden at just 9gCO2/KWh (yes, nine…).

It is therefore not surprising that very few countries are in a position to respect this criteria. In fact only two are: France and Sweden. And what do these two countries have in common? They both produce a large proportion of their electricity from nuclear power: 31% in Sweden and 75% in France.

Despite the claims of advocates of a 100% renewable energy system, they have yet to prove that a full decarbonisation of society is possible without recourse to stable, on-demand energy sources, i.e. hydropower or nuclear. Hydro is less and less an option, as the water we have in dams (when we have it) is better used for human consumption or agriculture. Portugal saw that last summer.

Let’s look at Germany, which decided to prematurely close its nuclear plants. It has invested 500 billion euros in the transition to renewable energy and what was the result? An electricity grid almost one and a half times more polluting than the European average. Consumption of lignite (the dirtiest type of coal) has increased, forests and villages have been destroyed to make way for open-pit mines. And for what? So that anti-science and anti-progress activists will be happy with the closure of nuclear power stations? It doesn’t seem like much of a trade-off to me.

This problem becomes even more apparent when we think about the amount of energy it will take to produce all the hydrogen we will need to consume. From transport, heating, to energy intensive industries such as steel production, hydrogen promises to transform the way we use energy on a daily basis. In 2017, 73% of all energy consumed in the EU still came from fossil fuels (European Environment Agency data). All of this needs to be replaced as soon as possible via electrification and with low-carbon hydrogen Excluding the largest source of low-carbon energy simply for ideological reasons is, in my view, criminal.

Nuclear power generates 50% of low-carbon electricity in the European Union. 13 Member States use nuclear power, with the overwhelming majority of them planning to expand their reactor fleet. Countries like Estonia and Poland are now preparing to take advantage of this technology, even Italy, traditionally anti-nuclear since the 1980s is reconsidering its position. Perhaps the discussion should also be opened in Portugal, where we still need energy when it is dark, when there is no wind and when the dams are empty.


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