ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno
Russia is Europe's largest natural gas supplier. The invasion of Ukraine, in addition to inflicting damage on dozens of historic buildings, has highlighted the enormous dependence of various countries on the global energy market. The European Commission's plan to move away from dependence on Russian fossil fuels involves improving energy efficiency, diversifying supply and accelerating the deployment of renewable energy. We look at the details of this strategy and the extent to which it will allow Europe to live without Russian gas.
Heavy dependence on Russian gas
In recent years, up to 60% of the European Union's (EU) energy needs have been met through foreign imports. In 2021, the EU imported an average of more than 380 million cubic metres per day of piped gas from Russia, according to the International Energy Agency. This works out to some 140 billion cubic metres a year, in addition to 15 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas. In total, imports from Russia accounted for a quarter of Europe's energy consumption in 2020.
Several critical pipelines link European energy markets with Russia. One of the main ones passes through Ukraine. Already last year, gas delivered to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines fell by 25% and fears of further disruptions rose with the build-up of Russian troops near the country's border. After the invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, the difficulties increased. In fact, one of Europe's greatest fears is that Russia will shut off the gas tap, and this has already started to come true. In recent months, the country has suspended supplies to Poland, Bulgaria and Finland for failure to pay for deliveries in roubles. In many countries, natural gas prices have soared.
Russia has cut off gas supplies to countries including Finland for refusing to accept its rouble payment system. Credit: BBC News.
From turning down the heat to slowing down traffic on motorways
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the European Commission is drawing up contingency plans in case Russian gas imports are completely cut off and to end Europe’s dependence on Russia. Its plan to achieve this is called REPowerEU and involves saving energy, diversifying the supply and rapidly deploying renewable energy sources. The investment will be €210 billion by 2027.
"Energy savings are the quickest and cheapest way to address the current energy crisis, and reduce bills," says the European Commission. The agency is encouraging EU countries to launch communication campaigns targeting households and industry to reduce gas and oil demand by 5% through voluntary short-term behavioural changes (such as turning down heating, reducing speed on motorways or encouraging cycling). It also seeks to introduce fiscal measures to encourage energy savings—such as reduced VAT rates for energy-efficient heating systems and appliances—and to require diversification of supplies. To this end, it plans to develop a mechanism to allow countries to negotiate joint gas purchases.
The European Commission plans to invest €210 billion by 2027 to wean itself off dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Credit: European Commission.
A massive deployment of renewable energy
One of the EU's main objectives is to accelerate the deployment of renewable energies such as hydrogen, which in theory "will accelerate our independence, give a boost to the green transition and reduce prices over time." As well as doubling solar photovoltaic capacity by 2025, the plan aims to double the rate of deployment of heat pumps and promote measures to integrate geothermal and solar thermal energy into modernised district and communal heating systems.
The EU strategy also includes recommendations to "tackle the slow and complex permitting process for major renewable energy projects". Matthias Taft, CEO of BayWa r.e. AG, a company that develops renewable projects and operates wind and solar farms, tells The Wall Street Journal that improving the permitting process for large-scale solar and wind projects could reduce the time it takes to get approval for a new project to six months to a year. Currently, according to the expert, this process typically takes five years or even longer.
The European Commission plans to double solar photovoltaic capacity by 2025 and accelerate the deployment of renewable energy. Credit: Unsplash.
Looking for viable alternatives
Despite all these measures, freeing ourselves from dependence on Russia in the short term is by no means straightforward. Finding alternative sources is a challenge. "Logistically, it is more difficult to replace gas, as we have these big pipelines that take Russian gas to Europe," Ben McWilliams, an energy policy analyst, told Energy Industry Review. According to this website, transfers between neighbouring countries via other pipelines could be made as a matter of urgency, but the price would be high and the quantities limited, as it would depend on agreements with their other customers.
As regards oil, McWilliams notes that "in theory it should be easier, as there aren’t so many pipelines – there are some coming from Russia, but there are also a lot of shipments from elsewhere." In addition, OECD members have 1.5 billion barrels of oil, enough to replace Russian exports for a year, according to Maciej Miniszewski, an analyst in the Climate and Energy Team at the Polish Economic Institute. The expert stresses that "the EU's emergency oil stocks can meet demand for 90 to 100 days."
The implementation of renewable sources takes time, so some consider that in the short term it is not a viable solution, but it could minimise the EU’s dependence on Russia in a few years' time. "We have seen a real emphasis on the rollout of clean technology," says Jules Besnainou, executive director of Cleantech for Europe. However, there is still a long way to go. Moving away from fossil fuels requires changes to the entire energy system. In addition to the need to upgrade electricity grids and adapt them to accept more renewable energy, charging stations for electric vehicles and networks to transport hydrogen from one place to another will have to be built.
We will have to wait and see how the global crisis triggered by the invasion of Ukraine unfolds. There is a possibility that Russia will continue to export gas to Europe, but also that supplies will be further reduced or even suspended in response to economic sanctions or due to the closure or destruction of Ukrainian pipelines. While this conflict may be an opportunity for the EU to once and for all make a strong commitment to renewables, Europe also risks moving out of one dependency and into another.
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