The European Union unveiled fresh plans today to reduce its dependency on Russian gas while also hastening its transition to clean energy. Russia’s savage invasion of Ukraine, as well as ongoing threats to further restrict Europe’s gas and oil supply, have made sustainable energy an even more pressing concern.
« It is past time for us to address our weaknesses and fast become more self-sufficient in our energy choices. » « Let us rush into renewable energy at breakneck speed, » European Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans said in a statement on March 8th.
The European Commission claims that by modifying how it heats houses and powers buildings over the next year, it will be able to dramatically reduce its gas consumption. Last year, Russian gas supplied roughly half of the EU’s gas supply. If the European Commission meets its targets, that figure will go to zero « far before » the end of the decade.
The eventual phase-out of gas will necessitate renovations in homes, buildings, and the electricity industry. These reforms were already on the way, according to Europe’s climate-change initiatives. Things simply have to move much faster now.
« A lot of the roadblocks to further reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will be much easier to remove, » Charles Moore, European programme lead at energy think tank Ember, told The Verge in an interview ahead of the European Commission’s forthcoming statements. « Nothing like a truly scary event to undo that lethargy. »
Over the previous year, an acute gas scarcity had already forced up heating and energy prices across the continent. Much of this was caused by a sharp increase in gas consumption as economies recovered from pandemic-induced shutdowns, however other causes also played a role in the problem. The antagonism of Russian President Vladimir Putin has heightened tensions. In reaction to increased Western sanctions, Russian officials have threatened to shut down a major pipeline that transports Russian gas to Germany.
« We must break free from Russian oil, coal, and gas. » « We simply cannot rely on a supplier that explicitly threatens us, » said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement issued today.
The European Commission’s new proposal includes hastening the approval process for renewable energy projects. It also intends to increase rooftop solar panel adoption this year. It intends to replace Russian gas with hydrogen fuel derived from renewable energy to power heavy industrial. It anticipates a « Hydrogen Accelerator » to incentivize increased fuel storage, port, and transportation infrastructure. The European Commission also intends to increase the EU’s output of waste-derived biomethane by 2030.
Increasing energy efficiency is another important component of the EU’s goal. One of the simplest things Europe can do to cut its gas use is to renovate homes and buildings to consume less energy. And, as winter draws to a close, Europe must begin preparing for the next one, ostensibly without relying on as much Russian gas for heating. Experts told The Verge that replacing gas heating with more efficient electric heat pumps is another major goal between now and next winter. Over the next five years, the European Commission intends to distribute 10 million heat pumps to homes.
While the European Union developed long-term plans to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil resources, the United States put an emergency restriction on Russian energy imports today. As the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, the United States is significantly less reliant on Russian fuel.
« We can take this step when others cannot, » US Vice President Joe Biden stated today at a press conference. « However, we are collaborating with Europe and our partners to build a long-term strategy to minimize their reliance on Russian energy as well. »
In recent months, the United States has increased its shipments of liquefied natural gas to Europe. And the EU announced today that, for the time being, it will rely more on imports from the United States and other countries other than Russia to replenish declining gas stocks. In order to meet winter heating demand, the commission expects gas storage to be filled to 90 percent capacity by October.
However, there are concerns that looking for gas in new regions may increase Europe’s dependency on the fossil fuel. Germany, for example, has just chosen to construct new ports for the import of liquefied natural gas.
In the electricity industry, gas-fired power stations are now filling gaps in Europe’s expanding wind and solar energy capacity. Renewables are becoming more affordable and plentiful, but customers require a backup source of power when the winds die down and the sun sets. Historically, fossil fuels and nuclear power plants have compensated for this intermittent nature, but utility-scale batteries and other critical kinds of energy storage are still in the works. However, with Russian gas off the table, Europe is left with two contentious options for expanding green energy: nuclear and coal.
Before Russia attacked Ukraine, the argument over the role of nuclear energy in the world’s clean energy transition was already raging. It’s gotten even more confusing. The International Energy Agency advocated boosting power generation from nuclear power reactors last week as part of a 10-point proposal to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas imports. Over the last week, Belgian and German leaders have both considered expanding their countries’ nuclear programs.
However, Germany reversed course today, dismissing the notion of keeping the country’s few remaining power plants operational beyond their previously scheduled shutdowns this year. Germany had planned to retire them because to safety and radioactive waste issues. Russia’s alleged strike on Ukraine’s main nuclear power plant last week aroused concerns about the discharge of radioactive materials.
In the absence of nuclear electricity and natural gas, more polluting coal-fired plants may find a way to survive. Since 2015, coal-fired power generation in the EU has been cut in half. That trend was driven by low-cost renewables and gas, but rising gas prices have made coal more appealing once again.
« There is obviously a risk of greater emissions in the short run, » adds Moore. Nonetheless, he sees clean energy as Europe’s future.
Whatever happens next, Europe is poised to experience major transformations. « European history has been changed in the space of weeks and days, » Timmermans said in a statement yesterday on the implications of the Ukraine war on energy and environmental policy. « Europe will never be the same again. »