How the ongoing pandemic and WETL can help us to plan the future energy system

23 July 2020

The first two quarters of 2020 have taken everyone by surprise and the energy industry is no exception. During the strictest lockdown measures in April, the electricity demand in Europe was nearly 20% lower than in 2019. The demand is now slowly recovering but due to the economic slowdown, load continues (as of 22 July) to be down by some 5%. At the same time the wind is still blowing and the sun is shining just like before - causing the share of renewable electricity in the system to reach new records time after time. Consequently, the carbon intensity of the European electricity system has been down by more than 15% compared to last year. Coal and nuclear generation – due to their inflexibility – have suffered the most during this accelerated energy transition.

As a result of the reduced demand, we have seen several days when the share of renewable electricity in Europe has been over half of the total generation. Understanding the power system dynamics during high renewable energy production days will help us to better plan for the future when we are likely to witness even higher shares of variable production in the grid.

Therefore, it is worth taking a deeper dive into the day when the share of renewable electricity last time hit a new record. On 5 July renewables produced 55% of the electricity in Europe and the old record from the previous month (6 June) was beaten by two percent points.
Summary of Electricity Market in Europe
On 5 July the weather conditions were favourable for both of the major renewable technologies; wind and solar. While coal-based generation has suffered the most with its generation down by a third compared to pre-pandemic levels, it can be seen that during the day with the record level of renewable energy production, natural gas-based technology made the most room for variable generation.

The graph below describes an hourly electricity generation of the three most populated EU countries – Germany, France and the United Kingdom – alongside with the hourly day-ahead prices from that same day.
Hourly electricity generation of the three largest EU countries by population
Both the United Kingdom and France experienced negative day-ahead prices for half of the day while in Germany the price was strongly negative for most of the day. In all three countries the price of electricity rose above zero during the evening peak hours.

Despite being highly unprofitable, many inflexible baseload plants were still running throughout the day as their technical characteristics do not allow continuous starting up and shutting down. During the midday while having the lowest prices, Germany was exporting over 10 GW and had to pay over 750,000€ per hour for its neighbours just to get rid of this excess electricity, and not being forced to shut down their baseload plants.

Five years ahead of schedule

In 2018 renewable electricity accounted for 32% of the total consumption in the European Union1. To meet the EU renewable energy targets, the share of renewable electricity will have to increase to a little over 50% by 20302,3. The Wärtsilä Energy Transition Lab shows that since mid-March when demand began to deviate from the previous year, the share of renewable electricity has been 44%. Thus, the last few months can be seen as a massive opportunity to study how the future energy system behaves – not as a simulation but in the real world with real characteristics.

Last months have proved that from the technical point of view the European electricity system can handle much more substantial proportions of renewable energy than it has traditionally coped with in the past. However, the recurrent and long-lasting periods with negative prices clearly demonstrate that the system suffers from inflexibility. If there were enough flexible assets in the system, EU consumers would enjoy cheaper and greener electricity.

The data from the last two weeks suggests that the electricity demand is slowly getting back to the pre-pandemic levels. Hence, the time window for new renewable record days is closing – at least for now. While the load is returning to its preceding levels, more and more renewables are being built all around the continent. Achieving EU’s renewable energy targets for 2030 means that the proportions of renewable electricity seen on 5 July will need to become commonplace as early as in the mid-2020s.

To learn more about how Wärtsilä can help you navigate the seas of energy transition please visit:

1. Eurostat (2020). Wind and water provide most renewable electricity.

2. Banja, M., Jegar, M. (2017). Renewable technologies in the EU electricity sector: trends and projections: Analysis in the framework of the EU 2030 climate and energy strategy. Joint Research Centre, European Commission.

3. Knopf, B. et al. (2015). The European renewable energy target for 2030 – An impact assessment of the electricity sector. Energy Policy, Volume 85, pp. 50-60.

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Joonatan Huhdanmäki

Joonatan Huhdanmäki

Power System Analyst, Business Development
Wärtsilä Energy

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