Europe is crossing its fingers for a mild winter this year. In addition to the continent’s struggles securing a steady supply of Russian natural gas—a source that is looking very shaky, given that half of Gazprom’s supplies transit Ukraine, and Moscow and Kiev aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye right now—Europe is now facing the possibility that it won’t be able to heat its homes because of the rise of renewables. Bloomberg reports:
A growing share of renewable energy is pushing out conventional sources of power, reducing the “electricity system’s margin to meet peak demand in specific conditions such as cold, dark and windless days,” [Cap Gemini SA said in its European Energy Markets Observatory report]. […]
“If we have a very cold winter, we could find ourselves in a very tense situation,” Colette Lewiner, Cap Gemini’s global energy and utilities researcher, said by phone.
Typically, fossil fuels and nuclear reactors provide what is called baseload energy, that is, a steady, dependable power output that can be counted on day in and day out. Renewables like wind and solar energy can’t replace that kind of supply, because they can only produce power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. These green resources instead serve to help supply peak demand, during the times of day when people are generally gluttons for electricity.
The problem is, as government subsidy regimes have increased renewables’ market share (in some cases quite dramatically, and at considerable cost), baseload generators can no longer afford to stick around, and have to shut up shop. We’re seeing that in Europe, where sluggish economic growth is already making it difficult for a lot of these power plants to find buyers for their supply.
Greens will undoubtedly cheer this as a victory, but may be doing so in cold, dark homes this winter if temperatures drop low enough. Renewable energy sources have a number of hurdles to vault before they can start seriously supplanting fossil fuels in the kind of green revolution many environmentalists dream of, and we may be witnessing one such limit in the coming months.