Electrification – the biggest climate action?

Fossil fuels must be phased out – in electricity production as well as in industry, heating and transportation. Above all, we are battling against climate change. To stop global warming, energy must be produced and consumed in new, sustainable ways. This is an enormous challenge, but it can be solved. When the production of clean electricity has been mainstreamed, the next step is to electrify everything that can be electrified. How is this possible? Is hydrogen the missing piece of the energy puzzle?

Most of us are used to a steady supply of electricity coming from the outlet in our homes. There must be a constant balance between electricity production and consumption so that there is enough electricity available at all times for the needs of households and industry. At the same time, well-informed consumers are aware that the origin of the electricity consumed plays an important role in reducing your personal carbon footprint.

About two-thirds of all the emissions caused by people come from energy production and consumption. Particularly in the Nordic countries, emissions from electricity production have decreased quickly, and the electricity produced is 90 per cent carbon-free hydro, nuclear, wind or solar power. The situation in Central Europe is more challenging, due to the larger scale and the fact that hydropower is not available to the same extent.

However, electricity accounts for only about a fifth of the energy we use in the EU, which is why making electricity production emission-free does not take us very far. What is needed is a system-level energy transition. At the heart of this is wide-scale electrification, which can help reduce emissions – especially in heating, transportation and industry. Electrification as such is not the answer for all sectors. Still, clean electricity can be used to produce clean and storable hydrogen, which is predicted to be one of the most important components of the future of energy.

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Where can we get enough clean energy?
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Within the European Union, fossil fuels still account for 40% of the electricity consumed. Because we need to eliminate emissions and because electricity consumption is growing, there is an increasing need for hydro, wind and solar power. Renewable energy sources currently generate about a third of the electricity consumed in the EU, and their share of the total electricity consumption is growing rapidly. In the EU, most of the renewable energy in electricity production comes from wind turbines and hydropower plants. While the share of solar power is still marginal, it is constantly growing, and solar cell systems are widely available for households as well as for the needs of shopping centres or industrial facilities.

Sudden, unpredictable consumption and production peaks occur in the electrical grid every day. At worst, they can cause power outages and interruptions. When the sun emerges from behind a cloud, the solar panels’ production shoots from zero to one hundred per cent, and when hundreds of electric vehicles connect to charging stations at the same time, the grid’s balance between electricity production and consumption can sway drastically. On the other hand, we need to be able to store renewable energy for the dark and windless hours as well.

To offset this fluctuation, the Nordic countries use hydropower. Water can be stored in lakes for months on end, and production at hydropower plants can be ramped up or down in a matter of just one second. Hydropower’s flexibility not only keeps the existing electricity system in balance, but it also enables the quick addition of wind and solar power into the system. Hydropower is a significant factor in combating climate change, and it currently represents over a third of the EU’s renewable electricity consumption.

In Central Europe, the fluctuation is offset mainly with natural gas-fired plants. But natural gas emissions too must be eliminated. One of the most promising alternatives for this is to replace natural gas with hydrogen.

Why is nuclear power needed?
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Nuclear power has an important role in clean energy production. It produces CO2-free electricity and is a reliable energy source that helps to mitigate climate change. Nuclear power’s greenhouse gas emissions during its lifecycle are comparable to wind, solar or hydropower.

When energy consumption is high, the steady supply of electricity is critical. Unlike other CO2-free forms of production (solar and wind), nuclear power is predictable because electricity can be produced continuously – regardless of weather conditions. Half of Europe’s emission-free electricity currently comes from nuclear power. It will also be needed in the future to reduce climate emissions.

What is hydrogen and how can it solve energy challenges?
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Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, but there is very little of it in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is the lightest of the elements, and it has the highest energy density. Hydrogen has been recognised as an energy source for more than two hundred years, but it has again emerged as a hot topic in energy and climate discussions. Why? Combusting clean hydrogen does not create any emissions – the only end product is steam, which can be used for electricity production.

In the future, our energy will be sourced increasingly from the sun and wind. However, there will be situations when solar or wind power does not produce enough electricity, and the energy system needs to be balanced with energy storage.

Short-term storage is possible with, for instance, hydropower, but especially in the Northern Europe, seasonal storage of energy will be needed for months at a time in the future. One solution for this is Power2X, i.e. converting electricity to energy form ‘X’. Here’s an example of how the method works: when there is a surplus of solar or wind energy, electrolysis can be used to produce hydrogen, which can then be stored for later use. Producing large amounts of hydrogen may also require constructing purpose-built wind and solar farms.

Today, natural gas still has an important role as an equaliser of energy production and consumption – especially in Central Europe. The role of natural gas is related to flexibility. More than two thirds of gas consumption is weather-dependent, with gas balancing shortages of wind and solar power. Storing gas is easy, and Europe has plenty of storage capacity. In the future, however, natural gas can be replaced with renewable, carbon-neutral gas produced from hydrogen.

Hydrogen may also be a solution for the replacement of fossil fuels in heavy-duty transportation. The so-called e-fuels that are hydrogen-based are currently still too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. But, in the long term, they are expected to have an important role in road, air and marine transportation.

Hydrogen is also a competitive solution for many industrial processes in which the transition to zero emissions is inevitable yet difficult with electrification alone. Hydrogen can replace fossil fuels, for instance, in the chemical industry and in steel production.

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