“Photovoltaics will be the key to saving our planet”

For Kevin Welch, Chief Strategy Officer at ENGIE Benelux, time is running out to save the planet. An energy transition is not enough to achieve this – we need an energy revolution. A revolution in which photovoltaics will be the key.

ENGIE Electrabel Kevin Welch jbc

You advocate an energy revolution to save the planet, but isn’t it too late?

Kevin Welch: “It isn’t too late but time is running out. It is true that most major energy corporations have deemed it too risky to delve into renewable energies. They preferred to wait and see, in contrast to smaller companies that accepted subsidies by saying that they would look ahead. It was only when they saw the world change and there was no going back that the big utilities adapted, some quicker than others.”

This revolution requires a drastic drop in CO2 emissions.

K.W.: “Absolutely. If we want to limit global warming to 2°C, we can emit no more than 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2, ever. We have previously emitted 1,900 gigatonnes. As a result, we need to focus our efforts on cutting CO2 emissions.”

Which solution would you recommend?

K.W.: “I firmly believe that photovoltaics is the key to saving the planet, simply because it will be the cheapest technology for generating energy without emitting CO2.”

Do you have any statistics?

K.W.: “The average cost of generation per solar panel currently totals €100-120 per megawatt hour, or MWh. By 2030, with organic solar power built into buildings, this cost will fall to €40 per MWh. As a result, solar power will be integrated everywhere and will compete with both wholesale electricity at its current market price of €28-30 per MWh, and particularly with the €190 per MWh that we, the consumers, all pay for mains electricity.”

There is still a catch though, as photovoltaic power depends on the weather.

K.W.: “You are correct. Storage, whether individual or in blocks, is the solution. Individual storage currently costs €350-400 per MWh but by 2030 this should fall to a tenth of its current amount, i.e. €40 per MWh. The maths will be crystal clear for Belgian households!

Digital technology will also make things considerably easier. It will encourage consumption when the panels are generating energy and storage when the occupants are not at home. Digital technology will change how we manage energy, which is why ENGIE Electrabel is developing new services and products like boxx, for example.”

If it is much easier for people to store their energy, aren’t you concerned that they will eventually disconnect from the grid?

K.W.: “The electricity grid will remain the backbone of the system. Pricing will vary depending on the power of the point used. There will doubtless be a different process for gas distribution networks. The volume transmitted for households will shrink following the electrification of household heating, especially in passive homes, and in light of energy efficiency in existing buildings.”

All of this electricity cannot be generated by renewable sources alone!

K.W.: “If we adopt a proactive approach based on our current knowledge and competencies, we should have 60-70% covered by renewable sources, comprising 25-30% solar power, 30-40% wind power, as we intend to densify our onshore and offshore generation, and a bit of biomass. These figures could even be higher if there is a real breakthrough.”

Where will the remaining 30 to 40% come from?

K.W.: “Gas-fired power plants. This is the best accompaniment as these plants are flexible and some are still operating. We need to recover everything we can. So, gas-fired power plants are an option, as are nuclear power plants, which, it needs to be said, are still the cheapest and cleanest technology in terms of CO2, as they just don’t emit any.”

That has not stopped some of our neighbours, including Germany, demanding that they be shut down.

K.W.: “They say that our power plants are unsafe. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be running them!

In contrast, I often wonder why Germany and Poland continue to generate electricity at lignite-based plants, which emit three times more CO2 per MWh than gas-fired power plants, which have been shut down.”

Is there a back-up for renewable technologies?

K.W.: “Even a proactive green policy needs a back-up plan. Existing gas-fired power plants can also help here. We need to find a solution that will revolutionise the economic model for managing electricity prices to ensure that these units are not decommissioned.

Whether that happens through subsidising these gas-fired power plants, I do not know. But one thing is certain: the wholesale electricity model is not sustainable and is outdated. We are on the verge of a system that could result in a systemic crisis similar to that seen in the banking sector. Several European stakeholders are in a poor position. We urgently need to reset the system to zero and be inventive.”

What do you recommend?

K.W.: “Civil society urgently needs to realise that it is nonsense to continue operating the most polluting plants that emit three times more CO2 than gas-fired plants. I believe that civil society can achieve anything that is not necessarily done by governments. If the body moves, the head will have to act. I hope.”

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