Headline: Renewable electricity for all. Untangling conflicts about where to build Europe’s future supply infrastructure

The European Union aims to fully decarbonise its electricity system by 2050 and relies largely on renewable electricity to reach this goal. A complete decarbonisation requires a large expansion of electricity infrastructure, such as wind farms, solar farms, and transmission lines. The expansion is controversially debated, with different preferences about which infrastructure should be built and where.

Preferences diverge for four reasons. First, infrastructure competes with other uses of land and alters landscapes. Second, location and size of renewable infrastructure projects determine ownership structures: large, centralised installations are better for large investors, while small, decentralised installations are better for small investors. Third, cost of electricity varies by region, based on the quality of locally available renewable resources. Fourth, the more electricity countries, regions, and municipalities generate locally, the less they must depend on imports.

In building upon the diverging preferences regarding these impacts, three dominant logics determine where and which renewable infrastructure should be built. Within the first logic, it should be driven by cost and thus built where it is cheapest. Within the second logic, it should be driven by location of demand and thus built within local communities. Within the third logic, it should be built in such a way that reduces impairment of landscapes. Because the three logics are conflicting, there is no consensus regarding infrastructure allocation. This lack of consensus may serve as a problem, as it increases opposition against developments and thus may slow or even stop the energy transition.

Within three contributions, I analyse the technical feasibility, economic viability, and land requirements of the three logics. My objective is to determine the extent to which the logics are possible, the extent to which they conflict, and whether compromise solutions exist that may relieve conflicts.

In the first contribution, I analyse the technical possibility of the demand-driven logic. By determining solar and wind generation potentials and contrasting them with today’s electricity demand, I identify whether self-sufficiency is possible, or whether imports are necessary. I find that the generation potential of Europe and all countries within Europe is large enough to satisfy annual electricity demand. On the regional (subnational) and municipal scales, most places have the potential for self-sufficiency, though some do not -- in particular, those with a high population density. My findings show that the demand-driven logic is technically possible in most places within Europe but that some places require electricity imports.

In the second contribution, I analyse the economic viability of the demand-driven logic and contrast it with the cost-driven logic. Using a dynamic model of the electricity system, I determine cost of electricity when there is unlimited trade on the continental scale (cost-driven logic), and when trade is limited to within countries or subnational regions (demand-driven logic). I find that cost increases with smaller scales and that the demand-driven logic leads to the highest cost. However, I find also that cost is primarily driven by where and how renewable fluctuations are balanced rather than where and how electricity is generated. While a trade-off between cost and scale exists, cost penalties of the demand-driven logic must not be large as long as fluctuations of renewable generation are balanced at continental scale.

In the third contribution, I analyse land requirements and the economic viability of the landscape-driven logic. Using the same model as before, I analyse the relationship between cost and land requirements of the electricity system by varying shares of solar and wind supply technologies. I find that the cost-minimal case (cost-driven) is based in equal parts on onshore wind and solar power on fields and requires some 2% of Europe’s land, roughly the size of Portugal. Land requirements can be reduced by replacing onshore wind with offshore wind or solar power, but land must be traded-off against cost. Cost penalties, however, are not substantial: half of the land requirements can be avoided for an expected cost penalty of only 5% when onshore wind turbines are moved offshore. The findings demonstrate the economic viability of the landscape-driven logic.

My findings have two important implications for European energy policy and the transition to a decarbonised electricity system. First, I show that renewable electricity based on any of the three logics is technically feasible and economically viable almost everywhere in Europe. However, the logics have very different impacts on landscapes, economies, and societies. The question of where and which renewable infrastructure should be built is a normative question.

Second, I show that renewable electricity is feasible not only when strictly following one logic, but also by mixing aspects of the logics, and that necessary trade-offs must not be strong. For example, a system supplied primarily by solar power on the regional scale with continental trade for balancing, has low cost, low land requirements, and high local independence. Similarly, a system supplied by primarily offshore wind and solar power on the national scale has low cost, low land requirements, and high national independence. Such compromise solutions may not be ideal in any logic, but they may be acceptable to all, and thus have the potential to relieve conflicts and enable a faster energy transition.

Publication Year
Publication Type
Monographs and Edited Volumes

Tröndle, T. (2020). Renewable electricity for all. Untangling conflicts about where to build Europe’s future supply infrastructure. PhD Thesis, ETH Zürich, Zürich.

Projects involved
The Transition to a Renewable Electricity System and its Interactions with Other Policy Aims (TRIPOD)