The gas crisis in Europe is also a renewable energy crisis, but there are ready-made solutions

Politicians blame the wave of prices on a rise in demand for natural gas as the world wakes up from the pandemic, supply disruption caused by maintenance and a summer with less wind than usual, with a drop in wind-generated power.

But really, Europe’s crisis is in the renewable energy sector. The region has invested heavily in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, but it can’t get enough of this green power for the people who need it.

However, there are other incentives to move more quickly to renewable energy sources. A fuller transition would free Europe from the disruption of volatile energy markets and reduce its dependence on other oil and gas suppliers, such as Russia. Europe could prevent its energy security from becoming entangled in geopolitical storms.

More than 40 European Union legislators, mostly from Eastern and Baltic states, have appealed to the European Commission to launch an investigation into Russian state gas company Gazprom. They suspect it had limited its supply to push prices up and pressure Germany to expedite the launch of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that runs from Russia and under the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Gazprom told CNN Business it was supplying gas to customers abroad “in full compliance with existing contractual obligations” and that deliveries were “at a level close to an all-time high” in the past eight months.

The International Energy Agency said on Wednesday that Russian exports to Europe were lower than in 2019 and that the country could do more to increase stocks for the winter.

“As for the Russian state, there is clear evidence that it uses its gas exports for its own geopolitical profit, it uses that strategically, it is not just a commercial venture,” said Matthew Paterson of the University of Manchester, a professor of international politics. researching climate politics.

“It has used gas to very, very aggressively influence Ukraine, and it appears to be using it in relation to other Eastern Central European states,” he added.

Europe has long been a world leader in renewable energy sources. Last year, the European Union and the United Kingdom used more renewable energy than fossil fuels to generate electricity.

But at the same time, the UK is dependent on gas for about 40% of its electricity and Europe is expanding and investing heavily in gas. The European Union currently has €87 billion ($102 billion) worth of gas projects in the pipeline, according to a report from the Global Energy Monitor (GEMSTONE).

The bloc wants to increase gas imports by 35%, which GEM says runs counter to the EU’s goal of having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Gas is widely regarded as a “cleaner” bridging fuel that can be used during the transition from coal to renewables for electricity. But there are some problems with that. Gas emits less carbon than coal and oil, but it is largely made of methane, a highly harmful greenhouse gas that leaks from pipelines and abandoned wells.

Smart grids are part of the answer

Gas shortages are felt more strongly in the UK, where prices have more than quadrupled and some small energy companies are going bankrupt.

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Experts say the current energy crisis – exacerbated by a lack of wind in the North Sea this summer – underscores the need for Europe to build more renewable infrastructure in more places and diversify its resources.

“Part of the answer is to put more windmills in different places because the wind will blow somewhere,” Paterson said.

The UK could explore more around hydropower and solar energy.

“People joke about the UK being grey, but you don’t need to know too much about solar cells to know that’s irrelevant. You get more when it’s sunny, but even in Manchester you’d get plenty of electricity and there is opportunity for that.”

Another part of the answer is on the demand side, not just supply, said Lisa Fischer, who leads the climate think tank E3G’s program on decarbonizing energy systems.

“Europe has been building up renewables quickly, and while we could go faster, what has been slow is critical action to reduce energy demand and make it more flexible,” she told CNN Business.

In England and Wales, data shows that houses that are not newly built are not meeting basic energy efficiency standards. Many older properties lack effective insulation, with single-glazed windows letting too much heat out and cold air in. People also usually heat their homes with gas-fired boilers, although electric heat pumps based on renewable energy sources are becoming increasingly popular.
A Royal Dutch Shell fuel tanker at the Shell Pernis refinery in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in April 2021.

Smart grids are another big part of the solution, Fischer said. Smart grids are digital electricity networks that can intelligently assess the behavior of their consumers and then respond with the right amount and type of energy needed.

While Europe has strong mandates for smart grid development, the bloc and the United Kingdom are lagging behind countries like the United States and China, which are leading investments in this technology. according to the IEA.

Rooftop solar panels are another option. The British government has flipped several times about subsidies and regulations surrounding roof panels for new homes. Better support in that area would allow residents to store energy themselves and sell unused power back to the national grid, Fischer said.

“If we don’t leverage that, we’ll need fossil fuels as a backup. If we do, it’s certainly possible to run energy systems without a fossil fuel backup,” Fischer added.

China the winner of the new energy world

While a full transition to renewables and low-emission energy will mean greater security independence for countries, the technology to harness the energy will create clear winners and losers in an energy-driven world order.

A report from the International Renewable Energy Agency showed that China was in the best position to become the world’s ‘renewable energy superpower’. It is currently the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, the report found.

Exporting and even building this infrastructure will boost China’s position in the world and increase its influence.

A view of a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal mining area, in China's eastern Anhui province.

“What China has done and likely will continue to do is export the equipment used to produce renewable energy,” said Dominic Chiu, a China analyst with the Albright Stonebridge Group.

“China has also helped countries such as Pakistan build solar farms. Energy infrastructure, renewable and non-renewable, plays an important role in China’s Belt and Road initiative,” Chiu added.

Those dynamics mean there’s still a lot of potential for energy security to get caught up in geopolitical tensions or other more thorny topics.

A study published in May by the British Sheffield Hallam’s University, for example, found that China used forced labor by ethnic minority Uyghurs in the production of solar panels. This prompted the United States to impose trade bans on five Chinese entities linked to the abuse.
On a recent trip to TianjinUS climate chief John Kerry said Chinese officials were complaining about the sanctions, arguing that they were limiting how cooperative China could be with the world on climate issues.

“That’s a potential concern many countries have with the production of polysilicon in China,” Chiu said, referring to the material used in the panels.

But sanctions have not had a huge impact on the industry, Chiu said.

In addition to the obvious climate benefits, there is an undeniable political advantage of renewables over fossil fuels such as gas. A country like Russia can cut off Europe’s supplies at the push of a button, but once a solar panel or windmill is installed, that’s it: no country can take the sun or the wind from another.

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