An electricity system with a high or total penetration of variable renewable energy sources is possible in the Nordic countries, meaning both fossil fuels and nuclear power could, in principle, be eliminated from the mix.
That’s according to modelling results reported this week in Nature Energy by a group of energy systems researchers who investigated the impact of increasing the share of intermittent renewable energy (IRE) resources on the Nordic power system. IRE resources include solar photovoltaic, wind, wave and tidal resources, which in the absence of storage options can only provide electricity when Mother Nature provides. The research team considered this variability over different time scales for Norway, Sweden, Finland and eastern Denmark, which are currently predominantly powered by hydro, nuclear, wind, fossil fuels and some biomass.
They developed two scenarios for fossil fuel and nuclear phase-out. The first imagined a high level of IRE integration, but where only 30 percent of generation from nuclear power is replaced by renewables. The second imagined a complete replacement of nuclear power by renewables. Atop this, they considered two different mixes for IRE. The first would see 90 percent coming from wind with 10 percent from solar PV, and the second offered a larger role for solar alongside substantial wave energy build-out and some tidal energy.
The scientists concluded that these four sources have different variability patterns depending on where across the Nordics they are situated. In addition, regardless of the energy mix or level of integration, an increase in variability on the current situation is inevitable with large amounts of IRE.
A fossil-free and nuclear-free Nordic power system is possible to achieve, they say, but high integration of IRE would produce more fluctuations over periods ranging from a few days to a few months.
This poses a challenge, the researchers conclude, as additional hydro capacity could be required to provide that on-demand source of reliable electricity. Making the transition to completely renewable power systems may also require greater flexibility via introducing novel options to balance supply and demand, such as using the batteries of an electrified transport fleet to store energy.
The researchers noted however that they did not consider current limitations on transmission across the Nordic region.
Their conclusions will be of interest for Canadian decarbonisation efforts given the similarity of geography, population density and the energy mix of the two regions. British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador all have significant penetration of hydroelectricity, while Ontario and New Brunswick rely on nuclear power for a substantial proportion of their electricity generation. The findings suggest that at least in principle nuclear is not needed so long as hydro picks up the slack in those jurisdictions whose geography would allow it.
“Canada seems to have striking similarities to the Nordic region: high hydro power penetration at more than 50 percent of electricity, good wind conditions in large part of the country, relatively poor solar potential, and wave and tidal possibilities particularly on the west coast,” Jon Olauson, the lead researcher for the paper, told the Climate Examiner.
“An important difference though is the larger geographical extent of Canada, which can give a better smoothing of wind power, in particular if more farms were to be installed in the west.”
PICS-funded researchers are currently looking into similar questions to the Nordic scientists, exploring how BC’s hydro could allow increased penetration of wind in Alberta, and whether nuclear needs to be part of the mix.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.