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2.2.3. Key trends for the future energy system in Europe

The European energy system will experience major changes in the coming decades as it transitions towards a low carbon energy system. The scenario review in the previous subsection has shown that some developments of the future energy system in Europe are almost certain, i.e. they occur in all scenarios. Other developments are less certain, i.e. they depend on the ambition level of the decarbonisation scenario, further policy choices and/or specific technological developments. This subsection summarizes key trends with a view as to their implications for climate change adaptation and resilience. More detailed information about climate change and its impacts on various components of the energy system, and about related adaptation needs and options, is presented in Chapter 3.

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Shifts in primary energy sources and technologies

Rapid growth in RES is a central element in all decarbonisation scenarios. RES growth has been fastest in the power sector, and this trend is expected to continue. However, achieving long-term climate targets also requires substantial growth in RES in other sectors and uses, in particular transport and heating. Most RES are sensitive to climate and weather conditions, such as water availability, soil moisture, wind availability and insolation. Furthermore, most RES require more land than conventional (fossil and nuclear) energy sources whereas their water use can be higher or lower, depending on the particular RES. Therefore, regional strategies for RES expansion need to assess the viability of specific RES under changing climate conditions and consider the energy-water-land nexus. Expansion of RES also involves a shift from fuel security (fossil and nuclear) to material supply security (in particular rare metals, such as neodymium, dysprosium and cobalt).However, this shift is not associated with specific adaptation challenges.

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Hydropower will continue to play an important role in the European RES mix, both as an energy source and for energy storage. Hydropower facilities are likely to see technological modifications in the future based on the development and expansion of hydropower pumped storage, which will increase energy system resilience. Expansion opportunities are limited and are constrained by wider sustainability concerns, in particular conflicts with nature protection. The largest remaining potential for new hydropower developments is in eastern Europe, especially in the Western Balkan region, where the EU has taken a strong interest in developing the region’s energy sectors (IHA, 2018). Hydropower is highly sensitive to climate conditions, with beneficial as well as adverse impacts of climate change expected in different European regions. Any expansion of hydropower should consider the viability of investments under changing climate conditions, in addition to other sustainability concerns.

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Natural gas (i.e. fossil methane) is likely an important transition fuel within the energy system. Natural gas is less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels, more readily available than RES in the short-term and already has well established infrastructure. For these reasons, gas is seen in many scenario as providing an important bridge away from coal and towards (future) low carbon energy sources. It can also serve as backup for time-variable RES. Natural gas may be increasingly replaced by biogas, e-gas and other low-carbon gases (sometimes termed ‘green gas’). There are considerable differences between scenarios regarding the overall role of gas in the future as well as the share of low-carbon gas (EC, 2018r). Most gas infrastructure is resilient to a wide range of climate conditions. Adaptation challenges can arise for offshore infrastructure, coastal infrastructure (e.g. LNG terminals) and infrastructure in permafrost regions at risk of thawing.

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Re-evaluation of nuclear energy may occur. Policies and public opinions about nuclear energy within Europe are mixed and evolving over time. A few countries, such as Germany, are phasing out nuclear power whereas other countries, for example the United Kingdom and Hungary, are still planning to construct new nuclear power plants in the future (World Nuclear Association, 2018). Nuclear power plants are operating in a wide range of climate conditions. The key adaptation challenges are associated with cooling water availability and with coastal hazards, as many nuclear power plants are located at the coast.

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Shifts in final energy carriers

Electrification of transport and heating will be critical to reduce the use of oil and other fossil fuels in these important sectors. Supporting infrastructure, such as charging stations for electric vehicles, needs to be designed to be operational in a wide range of climate conditions.

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The role of hydrogen in the future is uncertain. There are ambitious plans for a green hydrogen economy (including power-to-hydrogen), for example in the Netherlands, but most technologies are still in an early stage of development (Noordelijke Innovation Board, 2018). It is not currently possible to identify particular adaptation challenges.

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Changes in transmission and storage infrastructure

RES are often located far away from the energy consumers, and their availability over time does not necessarily match the demand curve. Therefore, an energy system with a stronger role of variable RES, and of electricity as an energy carrier, requires substantial expansions of transmission and storage infrastructure.

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The expansion and strengthening of electricity grids are important for the integration of increased shares of intermittent renewables in the European energy system, and for limiting the requirements for costly backup capacity, such as gas-fired power plants. This includes expanding cross-border connections and developing ‘smart grids’ (Schaber et al., 2012; Becker et al., 2014). European electricity network interconnection has improved in recent years, but further strengthening of grid networks is needed and expected. The vulnerability of the network to climate extremes, in particular storms, heat waves, and snow and ice accumulation, is a relevant cause of concern (Vonk et al., 2015) (see the case studies in Sections 4.6.4 and 4.6.5).

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Increasing energy storage is essential for managing the variability of renewables. Increasing storage capacity is a priority for the EC, which has proposed a market design initiative introducing elements that facilitate investments in energy storage (EC, 2017b). Pumped hydropower is currently the most important technology for large-scale energy storage, but it is also most sensitive to climatic conditions, in particular water availability. Rapid advances in battery technologies, associated cost reduction and increased uptake at both industrial and household levels can have significant benefits for energy system resilience.

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Gas infrastructure may expand, for reasons discussed above. Adaptation challenges are related mostly to offshore and coastal infrastructure and to infrastructure in permafrost regions.

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Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be an important element in a decarbonising energy system. If the carbon originates from sustainable biofuels, CCS even allows for negative carbon emissions. However, CCS has met with substantial opposition in some European countries, and the feasibility of its large-scale deployment is still uncertain due to the limited evidence gathered so far (Berrill et al., 2016). Furthermore, CCS decreases the efficiency of power plants, which in turn increases their fuel and water use. Therefore, the introduction of CCS increases adaptation challenges related to the energy-water nexus (Chandel et al., 2011; Byers et al., 2016).

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Change in total energy demand and social changes

Available energy scenarios show large differences regarding the development of future energy demand in Europe in coming decades. The EU 2016 Energy Reference Scenario assumes a largely constant final energy demand until 2050. Deeper decarbonisation pathways, such as scenarios in the EU long-term strategy A Clean Planet for All, place a stronger focus on energy efficiency improvements in buildings and electrical devices, and potentially changes in consumer behaviour, which result in decreasing energy demand (see also Grubler et al., 2018). Climate change can also cause changes in total and peak energy demand (see Section 3.5). Changes in energy demand affect the overall level of the mitigation and adaptation challenge.

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The pervasiveness of activities and services that depend on electricity has increased the social and economic costs of black-outs, including short ones. Studies from several European countries have estimated that the societal costs of a power cut can be 10 to 50 times higher than the direct costs to the energy company (Küfeoğlu, 2015; Growitsch et al., 2015; Wolf and Wenzel, 2016; Gündüz et al., 2017). As a result, there are now stronger societal expectations regarding a stable electricity supply. These expectations are an important driver for a more resilient energy system, which includes climate resilience as a central component (Boston, 2013).

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New low-carbon technology developments may also lead to new approaches to local and systemic energy governance, including growth in decentralised energy solutions (IEA, 2017b). Decentralised energy solutions can create adaptation challenges if decisions affecting the management of complex infrastructure are taken by a decentralized group of new market actors rather than centrally by more experienced actors. At the same time, decentralized actors can be more flexible and more knowledgeable about the local situation, including specific adaptation needs and options.

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