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Achieving 100% renewable power by mid-century

image credit: IRENA
Elena Ocenic's picture
Associate Programme Officer International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

I have hands-on experience in solar photovoltaic project development and expertise in European electricity market regulation. I am currently exploring how innovations in enabling technologies...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Feb 11, 2020

IRENA recently published a detailed case study “Innovative solutions for 100% renewable power in Sweden” which provides 4 tailor-made solutions to help integrate high shares of wind into Sweden’s power system by 2040. Recommendations build on experience from pilot projects and best practice from around the world documented in IRENA’s “Innovation landscape for a renewable-powered future” report and call for a revamp of technology, market design and regulation, system operation practices, as well as business models.

This article explains why pursuing highly ambitious policy targets for renewable power (as opposed to energy) are timely, which innovations are ready to be scaled up, and which countries have already experience operating a renewable-based power system. The Swedish case can inspire other countries to raise renewable power targets.

Pursuing 100% renewable power policies

The world needs an energy transition and leading countries are raising ambitions. As of 2019, over 40 IRENA members had some form of 100% renewable energy target, while 12 have specific targets of 80-100% renewable power by 2020-2050Germany for example is targeting “at least 80%” renewable power by 2050, while Sweden and Spain are aiming for 100% renewable power by 2040 and 2050, respectively.

Whereas hydro- (Brazil, Norway, Paraguay) and geothermal-based cases (Iceland) are well-known, the challenge is to develop power systems dominated by variable solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind.

Such strategies have global relevance. Power system transformation is at the forefront of this effort: according to IRENA’s latest scenarios, renewable power combined with deep electrification of transport and heating can contribute to 60% of the energy-related CO₂ emissions reductions needed by 2050.

With hydropower as a backbone, 100% renewable power is possible today

In 2019, renewables accounted for 99% and 98% of the power generated in the hydro-rich Costa Rica and Uruguay[1], with variable renewable energy (VRE) generation accounting for 17% (17% wind, 0.1% solar) and 36% (33% wind, 3% solar), respectively.

In Europe, in 2019, VRE generation represented over 62% in Denmark[2] (58% wind, 4% solar PV) and over 33% in Germany (24% wind, 9% solar PV). Some sub-regions have gone further, like the German grid area operated by 50Hertz which recorded 60% of the power consumed in 2019 from renewables.

Many technology-driven innovations can be scaled up now

Innovation is driving the global energy transformation and has enabled dramatic cost reductions for solar PV and wind. But as we accelerate this transformation, unlocking flexibility across the entire value chain of power systems is crucial for the cost-efficient integration of VRE.

Based on over 200 real-world pioneering projects, IRENA mapped 30 key innovations across 4 dimensions that have the potential to transform power systems either incrementally or radically:

  1. Enabling technologies: battery storage, renewable power-to-heat, renewable power-to-hydrogen, digital technologies (Internet-of-Things, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, Blockchain), smart grids and refurbishment of existing assets;
  2. Business models: new mechanisms for prosumers and schemes for on- and off-grid renewable power supply (e.g. aggregators, peer-to-peer electricity trading);
  3. Market design and regulations: wholesale market changes encouraging flexibility, providing better price signals and introducing remuneration schemes for grid services (e.g. refined time and space granularity), retail market changes stimulating consumer flexibility (e.g. time-of-use tariffs);
  4. System operation: new ways of operating distribution grids, market integration of distributed energy resources (e.g. EVs), new operational procedures enhancing flexibility (e.g. advanced weather forecasting for refined generation forecasts), virtual power lines[3] and dynamic line rating[4].

Pioneering the energy transition: a wide range of projects 

Sweden is already showcasing many disruptive solutions. Demand-side flexibility is expected to play an important role in Sweden by 2040, with tomorrow’s ‘smart homes’ and digital technologies managing the assets, which would otherwise become a burden to the distribution system. Smart charging EVstime-of-use tariffs and the planned data hub in Sweden, are all part of the solution. Another Swedish project entitled ‘Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology (HYBRIT) aims to decarbonise the iron and steel industry.

Solutions from elsewhere can be considered in a Swedish context. In attempt to decarbonise the transport sector, smart charging EVs coupled with renewables offer an obvious solution. Additionally, renewable power-to-hydrogen can be adopted in virtually any transport application where greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels are currently used, from shipstrainscars to bikes, such as the renewable hydrogen passenger ferry HYSeas III (floating offshore wind, wave and tidal energy, Scotland), the renewable hydrogen-fueled Energy Observer vessel (solar PV, France), the first hydrogen train in Lower Saxony (Germany), or the highly ambitious hydrogen roadmaps in China, Japan and Republic of Korea.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure network of hydrogen filling stations for Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles is rapidly expanding across Europe, and 82 stations are operational in Germany.

Sweden: innovative solutions for 100% renewable power by 2040

In 2019, IRENA convened 4 international workshops, as well as a national workshop with Swedish stakeholders. Building on this network and the Swedish case study, starting in 2020 a working group for IRENA members will be exchanging best practice on how to incorporate solutions at country-level and this case-study will be repeated elsewhere.

In collaboration with the Swedish Energy Agency, IRENA assessed which innovative solutions could best help Sweden achieve its policy target by 2040. In 2017, Swedish electricity production was almost entirely decarbonised with 40% hydro, 39% nuclear, 11% wind power and 10% combined heat and power fuelled predominantly by renewables.

By 2040, the share of variable renewables in the power system is estimated to reach 42% (39% wind, 3% solar PV). This will be enabled by more interconnections used for cross-border trading with neighbours, participation in the pan-European electricity market, climate-friendly, market-based policies, and strong innovation support.

In the meantime, some challenges to be addressed are:

  • Ensuring power system stability, because annual average inertia is expected to decrease from 202 GWs (2020) to 159 GWs (2040).
  • Balancing demand and supply, because there is greater consumption in the South and significant hydropower generation in the North.
  • Expanding the network, because of the long lead times for distribution and transmission infrastructure projects (EUR 15 billion to be invested by 2025).

4 tailor-made solutions

By combining innovations in the four dimensions, i.e. enabling technologiesbusiness modelsmarket design and system operation, 4 tailor-made solutions are proposed to integrate higher shares of wind:


Solution I: Provision of innovative ancillary services from both conventional and variable renewable


Solution II: Increasing power system flexibility thanks to the Pan-European electricity market


Solution III: System-friendly integration of distributed energy resources

Solution IV: Decarbonisation of end-use sectors via electrification with renewables

While each solution addresses a segment of the power sector value chain, a holistic approach creates major system-wide flexibility options, including direct and indirect (i.e. via hydrogen produced from renewables through electrolysis) electrification of end-use sectors. With new applications in transport, buildings and industry, doors are open for services supporting the transmission grid, turning EV smart charging technologies, energy storage and electrolysers into valuable assets.

Options for renewables in Sweden

An essential insight is that technology alone is not enough. Enabling frameworks must be adjusted to ensure a smooth transition. As ‘one-size-does-not-fit-all’, a detailed and independent assessment is needed to identify what “toolbox” elements have national relevance.

It is possible in Sweden!

The availability of a wide-range of technology-driven innovations ready to be scaled up, the examples of success in other countries and the essential infrastructure in place indicate that delivering a 100% renewable power system in Sweden with solar and wind reaching over 40% by 2040 is achievable. In Sweden, and elsewhere, the question remains how to maximize renewables beyond the power sector, in the industry, transport and buildings sectors. Sector coupling through direct and indirect electrification will play a key role in decarbonising those sectors whilst also unlocking new flexibility potentials.

Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Energy Post: 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 11, 2020

With many of these goals and programs looking understandably forward to 2040, 2050, and beyond, how do you think we can best go about keeping accountability towards progress in the immediate next few years? The groundwork needs to be laid now, and so penetration might be slower at first, but assigning far out deadlines also risks a mentality that there isn't as huge of a rush. What's the best way to keep the pedal to the metal today?

Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Feb 11, 2020

Matt, if we want to maintain our life style and quality of life we have to allow engineers to charge forward, not corrupt politicians and self-serving organization like the UN.  There is not other way.  Period.  

I provided sooo many evidences, but people like you elect to ignore and join the herd; much as Columbus and Galileo faced in their time. 

The Sun's energy sets the climate; we could not do anything about that, as we never could do anuthing about the weather...

Read carefully and try to heed, despite what other people say.

The International Energy Agency (IEA; French: Agence internationale de l'énergie) is a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organization established in the framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1974 in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

There was "Oil Crisis" in the 1970's, nor in the 1990's.  The UN thrives on creating hate and discontent.  The world has plenty oil and other fossil fuels, those were created by Mother Nature with the climate. 

Production costs might grow up only because we use what is easily accessible.  Having alternate "Free" energy is an eluding subject.  It has (i) related cost in converting it to electrical energy, it has (ii) limited availability (10% to 25% of the time) and (ii) unfriendly environmental impact.

We cannot have more Niagara Falls and Hoover dams.  We know where the geothermal energy is available, but it is limited. 

Using limited wind and solar causes inexpensive and reliable (98% availability) base-line plants to shut down - that is where we have to very carefully plan for the future.  We are losing the grid capacity and quality.

We do not have storage batteries and we never ever could use renewable energy to charge batteries.  We use renewable energy when it is available - it is not available to charge batteries.  We cannot eat our cake and have it too. 

Every so often great break through take place.  The L.E.D. light bulbs are huge break through - governments should issue those bulbs - free for the asking - it will reduce the grid load substantially. 

This is the best and only subsidy required.

Study the above carefully, walk away from the “Climate Change” and the UN agencies lies – they have an agenda aka ulterior motive.

P.S., the world known icons are not what they seem to be – Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after being elected – that was a clear pay-forward (aka bribe). 

The UN IPCC and Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Prize for straight out lies.  Al Gore showed seasonal ice thaw-off and the IPCC published the lie below in June of 1989…  

This 1989 UN's IPCC article that predicted disaster in 10 years, won the 2007 Nobel Prize (18 years later…) and still it is a known misinformation, a lie, a hoax, a scam, a fraud.

According to his UN’s IPCC article from June 1989 we should not exist today.

Subject: Ever wonder where ‘AOC’ and her gang the ‘Squad’ get their ‘ideas’ from?   This might be one - please notice published date . . .


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 11, 2020

"This article explains why pursuing highly ambitious policy targets for renewable power (as opposed to energy) are timely,...."

Elena, possibly a difficulty in translation, but in English this doesn't make sense. Energy is the potential to perform work, measured in joules, watthours, or ergs. Power is the rate energy is tranferred from one form to another, measured in watts. Each watt is equivalent to 1 joule/second.

Setting clean energy targets in terms of power, because it has no relationship on the quantity of emitted CO2, is a poor choice for evaluating progress in reducing carbon emissions.

Sometimes power is used colloquially to mean "power capacity". But in this context that doesn't make sense either, especially when discussing renewable energy. That a 3- megawatt wind turbine can possibly generate 3 million watts of power when the wind is blowing hard doesn't matter if it's erected in a location where the wind seldom blows at all.

Understanding these fundamentals is critical - if you don't understand what you're writing about, I can say with certainty your readers won't either.


Noam Mayraz's picture
Noam Mayraz on Feb 11, 2020

Bob, with all due respect this posting in general and the responses, including the latter, yours, are meaningless.

In engineering one cannot be vague - addressing the issues with politicians’ jargon - just does not cut the muster, come up to expectations; reach the required minimum standard.

You wrote about power - power is a definition, in the above connotation it is the nameplate only.  Power generating facilities are rated by their potential power in MW. 

Potential meaning that those wind and solar could be operating at a reduced power and/or limited time (a few hours / day vs. 24/7/365) - generating less than the rated nameplate suggests.

We are using electrical energy, which is the power over time.  100 MW power plant could generate 100 MWH if operated at full nameplate capacity for one hour.  If the plant operated 24 hours - it will generate 100 MW X 24 Hrs = 2,400 MWH.

Trouble is that wind and solar are weather dependent.  Rarely operate at nameplate capacity.  Empirical production records show that over a year period wind and solar are available limited hours and operate at reduce power.

The net results, for current technologies, is anywhere from 10% (solar in Germany) to 25% (solar in Southern California) of their name plate capacity.

100 MW fossil-fueled power plant will generate 100 MW X 8760 Hrs (in 1 year) = 876,000 MWH or 876 GWH.

100 MW solar in Germany generates 100 MW X 8760 Hrs X 0.1 Capacity factor) = 87.6 GWH.  Sad but true fact.

With such puny production we cannot charge batteries, which we do not have the technology for, because we need the electrical energy produced to be used, we cannot spare any for storage.  having storage batteries is a lie - we cannot eat our cake and have it too.

Try searching for wind and solar facilities empirical production figures and you will see that having 2000 hrs/yr worth of production is the best those could generate.  For 100% renewables we need 8760 hrs/ yr production - we just cannot achieve that despite all BS above - no can do...  Noam.

P.S., with today’s wind and solar technologies we need 5 times the current grid capacity (that fossil-fueled plats generate) in GWH electrical energy and storage to match.  Such installations are not feasible for area and cost limitation – a dream, a hoax, a lie - anyway you look at that it just cannot take place / happen.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 11, 2020

"You wrote about power - power is a definition, in the above connotation it is the nameplate only.  Power generating facilities are rated by their potential power in MW."

I'm using terms precisely defined in physics, Noam, not "connotations". "Nameplate," short for "nameplate capacity", is the full-load sustained output of a power plant - power capacity - the definition of which I made more than clear in my explanation.

"We are using electrical energy, which is the power over time."

No, electrical energy is not power over time. Power is energy over time - joules / second - making energy, power multiplied by time. You have it ass-backwards.

Please do not try to school me when you don't know wtf you're talking about, you're only confusing the article's author. Look up the terms in a dictionary, where you'll find precise definitions determined by scientific consensus. Like the word "fact", or "anthropogenic climate change."


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