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Can Europe’s energy grid take the heat as people use more A/C?


There was no need for air conditioning when London native Natasha Bennett grew up. But with the summer heat in recent years, that’s changed.

In her central London apartment, the 34-year-old chartered accountant and her husband tried different approaches — damp sheets and blinds closed all day — to keep cool enough to sleep during the more frequent heat waves. But when temperatures nudged toward 40 degrees Celsius in 2022, they realized that only an air conditioner could ensure a summer’s night sleep.

So when Bennett moved earlier this year to Raynes Park, the suburb just south of Wimbledon, she did not hesitate. “The loft room of this house is insanely hot in summer. We had a newborn baby and didn’t want to delay,” said Bennett.

It’s a scenario playing out across Europe, which has traditionally revelled in its open-air spaces and pragmatic approaches to dealing with heat. Open windows or daytime siestas no longer suffice and the advent of air conditioning has major implications for European energy supply.

Even before the recent record heat, air conditioning sales were rising more than six per cent annually across the continent, and are predicted to almost triple by 2050, with every heat wave driving another surge.

Cooling is a blind spot in energy policy, says the International Energy Agency (IEA) and is a looming threat to Europe’s energy grid as it adapts to the new reality.

The rise of active cooling — methods that require energy — means more electricity: Three times as much, according to IEA and others. In residential buildings alone, energy used for cooling more than doubled across Europe between 20122019. Air conditioner use accounts for approximately 140 terawatt hours of electricity, with at least 25 terawatt hours coming from residential use, a 2017 European study estimated.

Tackling this challenge without crashing the grid will require innovations and efforts on multiple fronts: Thoughtful design for new buildings, retrofitting existing buildings and technological advancements, said Patrick Darby, senior energy and carbon engineer at WalterFedy design firm in Kitchener, Ont.

Building design and construction are key for keeping cool while limiting air conditioning needs, said Darby. Insulation levels, the orientation and geometry of the building, window strategies with different exposures and many other features come into play when designing a facility. When renovating, respect must be given to the history of the building, while looking to decarbonize its energy systems, he said.

The European Commission’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and Energy Efficiency Directive are meant to address the significant number of old buildings that need renovating to improve energy efficiency. In the long run, these directives aim to produce decarbonized buildings that are highly energy efficient by 2050. Heat waves and hotter temperatures, however, are already happening now.

Currently, the European Commission estimates that 75 per cent of buildings across the continent are energy inefficient and another analysis said 97 per cent of all buildings need renovation if they are to qualify for an A-grade on Europe’s Energy Performance Certificate. With almost half of all buildings in Europe constructed before 1970 — some dating back to medieval times — air conditioners and energy efficiency were not a consideration.

“If you can invest in technologies, which make the building the most optimal in terms of energy profile,” said Darby, then you are also cutting costs in the long-term operation.

“Because energy is not cheap.” On average in 19 European countries, household electricity prices have nearly doubled in the last decade: From 34 cents per kilowatt hour in 2013 to 60 cents in 2023. In Ontario, rates went from 10.9 cents per kilowatt hour at midpeak times in 2013 to the current 12.2 cents.

As in North America, Europeans are looking to heat pumps as a cleaner and more energy-efficient alternative to air conditioners. They are more popular in Europe than in other parts of the world, and recently saw sales spike in the region, growing more than 60 per cent between 2020 and 2021. But the number of units sold barely scratches the demand, and will still stretch European electricity generation and transmission infrastructure.

With the electrification of everything — from cars to entire industries — the energy needed for cooling is “a huge, understudied area,” said Kristen Schell, assistant professor at Carleton University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department in Ottawa.

In Europe, the increased energy transmission needs could be met by better cross-border electricity interconnections, according to a new report by the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators and the EEA.

This will require both additional and improved use of existing energy grids, as well as additional energy interconnectors between European nations.

If implemented, this would also double the flexibility of the EU power system, better accommodating the fluctuating energy generation that comes with more intermittent renewable sources feeding the grids, and the climate driven peaks in consumption, summer and winter. It would also reduce Europe’s electricity consumption by more than 133 terawatt hours — or the entirety of Sweden’s 2022 electricity consumption.

For example, if Mediterranean countries need excess energy during an extreme heat wave, they could look to other European nations to generate and supply additional electricity.

On a smaller scale, energy distribution — energy connected directly to the consumer — also needs to be more robust. One of the biggest problems right now, Mihai Tomescu, an expert in energy and environment at the European Environment Agency (EEA), said, is that Europe needs more local grid connections.

The Netherlands, for example, is the leading European nation in solar-powered energy. A “net metering” system allows households with solar panels to offset their electricity costs by feeding any excess generated back into the grid.

However, the lack of local grid connections means that energy generated is lost, says Tomescu. “They need to curtail the output because the grids are not sufficiently well developed to send the electrons from the rooftop solar PV back into the grid.”

But tackling increased energy loads from air conditioners involves more than technical advancements. Consumers across Europe will also need to consider their actions.

“In the future, there is some need to be careful with energy consumption when outside temperatures are extreme — either in summer or winter,” said Stéphane Quefelec, senior expert in energy and environment at the EEA.

Heat waves can cause electricity surges well beyond average demand. One study found that air conditioning takes up less than three per cent of the yearly energy consumption in Paris, but that number surges to 81 per cent above average during a heat wave. Another study found an 87 per cent increase in energy consumption in Rome. Utilities will need various demand-limiting strategies, said Quefelec. Everything from information campaigns for consumers along with incentives to set thermostats at a reasonable level and encouraging use of cooling techniques — like well-designed ceiling fans, green roofs and walls, shading and natural ventilation — that require little or no electricity.

Canada faces similar problems when it comes to hotter summers: a need to keep cool, increased energy loads and providing electricity over a large land mass — but electricity supply will be Canada’s biggest issue. In the past, Canadian consumers have largely been able to choose when and how they use electricity because the nation’s energy grids are designed to have a 20 per cent capacity buffer.

However, if Canada is to “electrify everything, we need to expand the grid by three to four times what it is now,” said Schell. Cooling alone would account for approximately a five per cent increase in energy use “that we have not (specifically) projected for in our models.”

Keeping Europe cool without overloading the grid will require multiple efforts on multiple fronts, as well as considering the context in each country. Everything from more greenery, to carefully designed buildings, to changing individual’s behaviour, to managing peak energy demands and ensuring energy efficiency — from initial energy production all the way to end use.

“The real challenge is combining all these different approaches,” said Quefelec.





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