Policy pathways for the energy transition in Europe and selected European countries

Policy pathways for the energy transition in Europe and selected European countries
Working Paper
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This report investigates the potential future need for and role of two of the main dispatchable renewable power sources available in Europe – CSP equipped with thermal storage and dispatchable hydropower (dam and pumped hydro). The generated data –which will subsequently be fed into two different modelling frameworks in the MUSTEC and SCCER JA IDEA consorti – describe the policy pathways of a set of European countries (France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Switzerland).


In a decarbonised future electricity system, Europe will rely on fluctuating renewable sources, such as solar PV and wind power, to a much larger extent than today. This means that Europe as a whole and each individual country on the continent must increase the availability and use of flexibility options in order to balance the grid. Such flexibility options include dispatchable renewable sources (e.g. concentrating solar power (CSP) with thermal storage, or dam hydropower), electricity storage, and demand-response.

We start from the notion that the future does not happen, but it is made by a series of policy decisions between now and then. If this is true, then the electricity system of 2050 is determined by the sum of all policy decisions affecting the power system – the policy pathway – in all legislations in Europe until 2050. In this report, we take the first steps towards identifying the potential future role for dispatchable renewables – specifically CSP (MUSTEC project) and dam hydropower (SCCER JA IDEA project) – as a function of policy decisions that either increase the need for flexibility (e.g. fluctuating renewables) or provide flexibility (e.g. storage, dispatchable renewables, flexible demand).

We draw on the energy transition logics framework developed by Foxon and colleagues. This framework poses that the space of possible energy transition pathways is a triangle with three distinct policy logics in its corners: a state-centred logic, in which the central government leads or carries out the transition; a market-centred logic, in which the government sets the framework but leaves all other decisions to market actors; and a grassroots-centred logic, in which the transition is carried out locally with the resources available to each community. Any transition strategy will consist, in some constellation, of policies from these corner.

We investigate policy strategies in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and of the European Union as a whole. For each case, we define one dominant pathway, consisting of currently valid, implemented policies of the current (or newly resigned) government. In addition, we identify up to three minority pathways for each case, describing the energy policy visions of parties that are currently in opposition but could form a government in the future. For each case, we identify pathways representing each of the three logics. Every pathway is described in narrative form, and as a set of 41 quantitative variables affecting the need for and provision of power system flexibility.

This report is a primary data source for the power system modelling in the two projects it is part of (MUSTEC, Horizon 2020; SCCER JA IDEA, Swiss Competence Centre for Energy Research). This modelling will happen in 2019 and 2020, and will bring detailed, quantitiave insights of how the potential role for dispatchable renewables is affected by energy policy decisions. However, from the data we have derived here, we can draw a number of conclusions.

We show that all countries and the EU as a whole seek to strongly decarbonise their power systems, but also that no dominant pathway foresees decarbonisation to the extent that would be needed to fulfil the European (Union and national) commitments under the Paris Agreement. We also show that all countries seek to vastly expand intermittent renewables, which will trigger a greatly increased need for flexibility. However, this is not reflected in the policies we analysed: no pathway, dominant or minority, is specific on how they want to provide flexibility, especially not at the scale and pace needed. This problem will be exacerbated as the climate targets are tightened and fossil fuels – first coal and lignite (mainly in the 2020s) and later gas power (especially in the 2040s) – are phased out: once this happens, the European power system(s) will lose much of its current flexibility, and unless other, carbon-free flexibility options are expanded, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain power system stability.


The European electricity system is changing, both rapidly and profoundly: the climate commitment under the Paris Agreement requires the electricity supply to become completely carbon-neutral by mid-century (IPCC, 2014, 2018a; Patt, 2015). This is a very far reaching shift of the way electricity is generated and, possibly, consumed: a transition is far more than an adaptation of an existing system – it is the reconstruction of an entirely new system, adapted to the needs of the new technologies and practices (Geels et al., 2017). The transition to a decarbonised power system in Europe is full of unknowns, regarding how to achieve decarbonisation, how to manage a future decarbonised electricity system, and who is going to make the relevant decisions. Some things can however be known already now.

First, any decarbonised electricity future in Europe will be based mainly on renewables, as the other low-carbon options – nuclear power and fossil fuelled power with carbon capture and storage (CCS) – face problems both with costs and public acceptance (EASAC, 2013; GCI, 2015; IAEA, 2015; Metz et al., 2007; Vattenfall, 2014; WNN, 2015a, b, c). The potential for renewable power is sufficiently large, both in Europe as a whole and in every country in isolation, to cover 100% of the demand (Tröndle et al., in review). We also know that most of that renewable power will be fluctuating, since wind power and solar photovoltaics (PV) are the most mature, lowest-cost technologies available – and as these have the by far largest renewable energy resources available in Europe (IRENA, 2018; IRENA and EC, 2018).

This means that a key challenge for the European energy transition will be to find ways to handle large shares of fluctuating supply – to make the remainder of the system flexible enough to remain stable, and preferably at a reasonable cost. There are many possible ways to achieve this, at least in theory. Such flexibility options include demand-side changes such as making demand flexible and increasing consumer price-responsiveness, and infrastructure adaptations, such as new transmission lines. Increasing flexibility could also mean the large-scale expansion of storage, both decentralised (e.g. batteries) and centralised (e.g. pressurised air storage). Finally, a key measure to increase the level of flexibility in the power system is a targeted expansion of dispatchable renewables, including dam hydropower and concentrating solar power (CSP) with thermal storage.

Second, the national power systems in Europe are becoming increasingly integrated, driven both by the development of an internal European power market and by techno-economic efficiencies of sharing capacities across national borders. As long as the Union remains intact, this seems like a process that is unlikely to be reversed, especially as the internal market is the core rationale and the glue of the European Union. Further, as increased transmission over large distances is a potential key balancing measure for fluctuating renewables, their expansion is an emerging driver for system interconnection, that is likely to gain additional importance over time.

This means that both electricity policy and the technical electricity system are increasingly europeanised: national decisions are not the only determinant, and sometimes not even the primary one, of a country’s electricity future. Instead, decisions made in Brussels limit the possible decision space for national policy makers and decisions made in neighbouring countries may have great repercussions in one’s own country as well. Consequently, the continental power system trajectory is largely determined by the sum of decisions made at especially the European and Member State levels.

In this report, we investigate the potential future need for and role of two of the main dispatchable renewable power sources available in Europe – CSP equipped with thermal storage and dispatchable hydropower (dam and pumped hydro). We deviate from the mainstream approach of letting energy models search for cost-optimal futures and instead assume that the (electricity) future is the sum of (electricity) policy decisions made between now and then. The future does not “happen”, and it is not the result of economic “laws” – it is made by conscious steps taken by human actors, the actions of whom are guided by their collective beliefs and perceptions. Hence, we generate data – which will subsequently be fed into two different modelling frameworks in the MUSTEC and SCCER JA IDEA consortia – describing the policy pathways of a set of European countries. These policy pathways consist of all (actual or possible) near- to mid-term policy decisions that affect the need for power system flexibility, either by increasing it (e.g. more fluctuating renewables) or reducing it by providing flexibility (e.g. dispatchable sources, storage, interconnections). Each pathway is centred around a certain logic – a worldview, or belief about the type of policies that are (to its proponents) acceptable and beneficial, leading to a distinct type of electricity future.

We analyse current and potential future policy decisions in the large western EU countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy) as well as of Switzerland (as the home of much of Europe’s dam hydropower capacity) and of the European Commission, and bundle them into sets of policy pathways which describe the trajectories of each country and the EU as a whole. These pathways will be a central data input for the modelling frameworks and shape the scenario construction with the ultimate aims of identifying what the potential role for dispatchable CSP and/or dispatchable hydropower is, and on which specific policy decisions this role depends.

Johan Lilliestam
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) | @JLilliestam

Richard Thonig
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) | @RThonig

Pablo del Río

Christoph Kiefer

Natalia Caldés

Yolanda Lechón
CIEMAT | @YLechon

Gonzalo Escribano
Elcano Royal Institute | @g_escribano

Lara Lázaro Touza
Elcano Royal Institute | @lazarotouza

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