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A Qualitative Study Of Electricity And Decarbonisation Challenges In The Nordic Region 

The Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — have aggressive climate and energy policies in place and have already emerged as leaders in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Although renewable sources of energy already comprise a substantial role in the region’s electricity portfolio, their utilization is expected to grow rapidly between 2016 and 2050 to reach a carbon neutral society.

A necessary and massive shift is therefore underway to further transition the Nordic electricity system to low-carbon forms. But how is such a transition perceived by dominant stakeholders and experts?

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To provide an answer, we studied the electricity challenges throughout the Nordic region through data collected from 227 semi-structured interviews about electric mobility with participants from 201 institutions across seventeen cities. Those interviewed were selected to represent the diverse array of stakeholders involved with electricity mobility, including electricity supply technology and infrastructure, policy and practice, and included experts from national government ministries, agencies, and departments; local government ministries, agencies, and departments; universities and research institutes; electricity suppliers and utilities; and other private sector companies.

We find that those interviewed identified no less than 40 distinct electricity challenges facing the Nordic region. The integration of renewables was by far the most frequently mentioned (14.5%) of the expert sample. Five other challenges were also mentioned the most frequently by respondents: electrification of transport and other sectors (10.6%), managing intermittency (8.8%), carbon intensity (8.4%), supporting local grids (8.4%), and adequate capacity (8.4%). Interestingly, items such as energy efficiency, consumer awareness, industry, energy security, and public opposition were mentioned by only 1.8% (or less).

Figure 1: Overview of Forty Electricity Decarbonisation Challenges Identified in Expert Interviews (n=227) (Credit: Benjamin Sovacool)

We believe this has three implications for broader policy and research. First, the combined top six challenges — integration of renewables, electrification of transport and heat, technically managing intermittency, carbon intensity and emissions, the reliability of local grids, and ensuring adequate capacity—may serve as a useful ordering of priorities for energy and climate planners and policymakers.  They offer a good starting point for the categorizing the obstacles that must be must be overcome for decarbonization goals to be reached.

Second, and connected to this point, is that decarbonization is by no means a given, even in the Nordic region. Substantial barriers exist or at least are perceived to exist by our experts. Some of these six priorities touch upon intricate technically oriented organizational concerns, such as maintaining adequate capacity, managing intermittent flows of wind, solar, or hydroelectricity, or ensuring the reliability of local transmission and distribution grids. Others touch on environmental concerns, such as climate change or decarbonizing transport via the electrification of rail and cars, or political and economic concerns, such as accommodating renewable sources of energy in an affordable way. Still others across the 40 listed touch on other themes.

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Therefore, the success of electricity decarbonization efforts depends upon overcoming a portfolio of technical and non-technical challenges as diffuse as systems integration, adoption of alternative forms of mobility, pricing and financing regimes, harmonizing policies, and making strategic public investments. In addition, households and consumers must learn to adopt better energy management systems and industrial planners must come to install newer cement kilns, electric arc furnaces, and feedstock switching for chemicals, petrochemicals, and paper and pulping.

Third, and lastly, is the prioritization of challenges did differ meaningfully across geography and country context.  Within the sample, some challenges were more prioritized in certain places. In Iceland, local grids and adequate capacity were most frequently mentioned, whereas, in Sweden and Denmark, it was an integration of renewables. In Finland, it was intermittency and carbon dioxide emissions, in Norway, electrification of other sectors.

In sum, even process of electricity decarbonization ongoing in the Nordic region—perhaps the exemplar for the world—reminds us that energy transitions are contingent and complex that we may like to believe.

These findings are described in the article entitled Expert perceptions of low-carbon transitions: Investigating the challenges of electricity decarbonisation in the Nordic region, recently published in the journal Energy. This work was conducted by Benjamin K. Sovacool (from Aarhus University and the University of Sussex), Johannes Kester, Gerardo Zarazua de Rubens, and Lance Noel from Aarhus University.

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