A gloomy outlook was presented to European leaders and energy leaders by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at its annual conference on energy efficiency in Copenhagen on June 8e. Europe is not prepared for the coming winter. Governments across Europe have the difficult task of finding the energy needed for winter and relieving consumers of the burden posed by rising gas and energy prices. Given rising inflation, this is a Herculean task.
Europe’s ability to easily store gas and coal for the winter has been undermined by record heat waves. The European Commission and the IEA”9-step plan to save energy, Ukraine and the planetattempts to reconcile exceptionally high energy demand in the summer, green initiatives and the inevitable peaks in energy demand in the winter. Germany has already declared an energy crisis and is preparing to intensify this state of emergency. Businesses and the public are urged to reduce their consumption, as some countries face the threat of power cuts. No wonder: Russia shuts down Nord Stream 1, allegedly for technical maintenance, and Nord Stream 2 is dead. Gazprom and Rosneft supplied more than 32% of German gas before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
While Europe needs to plan, the 9-step plan focuses on consumer energy use with suggestions such as “Use public transport” and “turn down the heat and air conditioningdoes not inspire confidence. Asking consumers to sacrifice themselves for foreign policy initiatives without public buy-in is a dubious proposition because President Jimmy Carter can tell you.
It is only when there is a surge of popular will in the face of an existential threat to create a common sense of agency and sacrifice as in London under Blitz, Israel besieged by its neighbors, or South Korea threatened by the North, can such a strategy succeed. Even if it could succeed, relying solely on consumers to change their habits and their shoulders for winter is an abdication of responsibility. There is no choice but to increase base production.
Germany has laid the framework for a “Gas replacement reserve” law that will move the country towards a hybrid rationing system. This law combined with the reintroduction of coal-fired power plants into the German energy grid aims to overcome the acute energy crisis in winter, but also to allow gas storage tanks to increase their reserves now to reduce the load in winter. This law officially signals Germany’s recognition of coal as a source of bridge energy until Europe can create new sources of gas, oil and renewable energy. This change in policy will radiate from Berlin to other European capitals.
European winter will mean more than cold houses. Rising energy prices and supply shortages will inevitably impact industrial production and cause major economic problems.
To deal with this threat and support consumers, different approaches are being tested in Europe. Austria and France introduced energy voucher systemswhile Belgium and Germany have opted for reduce energy taxes.
The UK has decided to adopt a direct stimulus where all households will receive one-off £400 payments, although the energy price cap set by UK regulator Ofgem has also risen and is expected to rise further this winter. As different as these approaches are, the common denominator remains a desperate scramble to get more energy, even dirty energy, fast.
As bad as the energy situation in Western Europe is, it is much worse in Ukraine. With Russia indiscriminately attacking civilians and its national defense-oriented infrastructure, the country is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe. 12 million Ukrainians have been driven from their homes and 10 million are currently in transit camps unsuitable for winter. A 50% drop in energy production combined with longtime Russian ally General Winter will be devastating for Ukraine and all of Europe if there is not a better planning.
But planning properly is easier said than done. It is clear that there is no easy way out of this impasse. The return of coal to Europe may be necessary due to looming safety concerns, but the resulting pollution also undermines climate change policy and leads to even dirtier energy consumption. The obvious solution is nuclear power. Germany’s Green Party remains at loggerheads with the rest of its ruling coalition, maintaining its fiercely anti-nuclear stance even as the Green Party’s energy minister now reluctantly imports coal. Worse still, Germany only has decreases its nuclear energy capabilities by closing 3 reactors in January 2022, with the last 3 still scheduled for shutdown by the end of the year. This avoidable stalemate is all the more frustrating when you consider that a recent poll by the German television channel RTL/ntv shows that 68% of Germans favor reconsidering the dismantling of nuclear power plants.
Having just emerged from a series of Covid lockdowns and a global economic downturn amid war and future economic problems, is it wise for European economies to suffer another climate blow if we can’t find a way to close the energy gap?
There’s an old saying, “it’s easy to be brave behind castle walls”. Europe is currently ignoring the failures of its energy policy but will not have this luxury in a few months. The plans presented so far are lackluster. Russian state media have already begun beating the drum that winter will doom European efforts to support Ukraine. Only alternative energy solutions such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), nuclear and alternative suppliers such as Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will help increase baseload production and allow Europe to survive the bad winter which is coming.