The Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to Germany’s Greens, argues that Germany could – with the right policies – go 100% renewable by 2050, even as it phases out nuclear power and sticks to EU carbon emission limits.

Germany’s current target, embraced by the Merkel administration, is 80% clean energy by mid-century.

But for Germany to go completely renewable, argues a new report entitled “A European Union for Renewable Energies,” there has to be greatly improved cooperation and strategic coordination at the EU level. The EU targets, road maps, and action plans that exist are steps in the right direction, say the report’s authors, but they fall far short of a comprehensive EU common energy policy.

“Without a common vision for the future energy mix the goals of sustainability and European energy security will go nowhere,” says the Brussels coordinator of the foundation’s energy and climate unit, Silvia Brugger. Currently, she says, it’s the case that “different member countries follow different energy policies along national lines.”

The report, prepared by a independent commission of experts, argues that two fields deserve priority attention: an all-Europe transmission grid and the restructuring of Europe’s energy markets. The foundation is also holding an event to draw attention to lessons the US could learn from Germany’s ongoing clean-energy transition, find out more about that event in Washington, DC here.

Hub and Spoke System Favors Fossil Fuels

One area of focus is transmission grids: Most European countries’ current energy grids are antiquated, nationally organized, and designed for fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, which were the dominant suppliers of electricity when the transmission systems were constructed, in some cases decades ago. The grids are composed mostly of one-way transmission cables connecting large production facilities, like coal-firing plans and nuclear reactors, to residential and commercial hubs.

Renewable energies, especially wind and photovoltaic solar, require a different grid system, tailored to their qualities. Wind and solar are by their nature intermittent suppliers – wind turbines generating only on gusty days and PV effective only when the sun is shining. Thus in order to keep electricity supply constant even in times of low wind or weak sunshine, their generated power either has to be stored (at times of surplus supply and then distributed upon demand) or transferred at times of surplus directly to regions with high demand at that time.

Since the requisite storage technology is still largely undeveloped, what is need are “smart,” flexible, decentralized grids that crisscross the continent and beyond. A smart grid is a digital network that links dispersed suppliers, like those operating wind parks and solar installations, and customers through the Internet. Computers collect and act on nationwide – or in this case continent-wide – information about power supply and demand. The data center determines where high energy production is happening, say on Denmark’s North Sea coastline on a windy weekday afternoon, and automatically and at all times forwards electricity to consumers who need it right then, say in production hubs in southern Germany on a cloudy day.

The wider-reaching and “smarter” this network is, the better will be its ability to match weather-dependent supply surpluses and demand needs. In contrast to the “dumb,” decentralized networks of the fossil-fuel age, a decentralized grid would connect smaller producers both regionally and across borders.

Since grid construction needs as much as ten years to be realized, potential grid investors would need an unshakable commitment to renewable energies to invest in such a costly project. The report underscores a number of measures to get the ball on an all-European system rolling, including a “review” of the EU treaty that stipulates that the national states have full authority to determine their own energy supplies as they wish. Ultimately there must be a guarantee that nationally minded states don’t obstruct plans for a European grid system.

Europe’s Energy Market

As for Europe’s current energy markets, they too tend to reflect national priorities and a fossil fuel-dominated system that the EU is supposedly committed to phasing out. The report argues that “open and hidden” subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear must be abolished in order to even the playing field between renewable and conventional energies.

As much as the EU has done for renewables and climate protection, argue the report’s authors, it has to make an even stronger commitment to prioritizing renewable energies including in infrastructure for district heating and cooling, heat-pump storage facilities, and electromobility. The report claims that the EU should set binding targets of 45% renewables for 2030 (the present aim at 20 % by 2020) in order to secure investor confidence for long-tern investments.

It argues that the EU’s scenarios for 2050 “fall short of showing how a Europe of renewable energies and low carbon emissions can be realized.” Moreover, the EU visions still include the like of nuclear power and “Carbon Capture and Storage,” both of which the report’s authors consider unsustainable and ultimately counterproductive.

When it comes to the laws and measures designed to develop clean energy capacity, Europe is a patchwork of diverse incentives, subsidies, and related taxes. About two-thirds of EU countries have a feed-in tariff along the lines of Germany’s successful model. It’s essence is that utilities are required to buy renewable energy from private producers at a higher-than-market price in order to cover the producer’s investment in solar modules, wind turbines, biogas plants, or other production installations.

For more on Germany’s renewable energy model, read “The Green Republic.”

A key recommendation is the gradual harmonization of incentive and subsidy programs based on best practice models, including but not limited to the feed-in tariff. “To make prices within the internal energy market more transparent and attract crossborder investment,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, the report’s chief organizer. “Today’s systems have to be better connected, based on feed-in-tariffs. Remuneration systems like tenders and auctions for big producers such as offshore wind farms can help make today’s system even more competitive, but this doesn’t mean replacing the most successful elements of the feed-in tariffs.”

The report emphasizes that there must be large-scale citizen involvement in the planning of the grids and on subsidy levels. “These are decisions and policies,” said Bärbel Höhn, a Greens parliamentarian at the report’s launch, “with enormous, far-reaching consequences and they can’t be made over the heads of Germany’s or Europe’s citizens. There has to be broad, democratic participation from the beginning.”

The benefit to Europeans in Germany and beyond could be substantial: “A Europe-wide grid will complete Europe’s internal energy market, a key goal of the EU,” says Müller-Kraenner.

“Consumers of electricity, companies and private households, will profit if they can buy cheap electricity from wind and solar. This is the reason why even today, renewable electricity from Germany is being sold to neighboring countries like France or Poland. “

But questions remain whether policies that have largely worked for Germany are necessarily good for everyone else in the EU.

This piece appears on Breaking Energy as part of the Energy Transparency series in partnership with Vestas.