Europe’s plan to wean itself off Russian gas may well work – Mother Jones

A gas storage facility affiliated with Gazprom in Lower Saxony, Germany. Lino Mirgeler/dpa via ZUMA Press

This story was originally posted by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate office collaboration.

In 1970, West German politicians and gas executives signed a historic deal with the Soviet Union that would shape the next half-century of European energy policy. West Germany promised to supply the USSR with steel pipes, while in exchange the USSR would extend a gas pipeline to the West German border and start pumping gas Soviet Union under the Iron Curtain and in Western Europe. The trade agreement was a form of Ostpolitik– a broader policy of thawing relations between the USSR and West Germany which would earn West German Chancellor Willy Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

Brandt, who died in 1992, might not have imagined just how intertwined the two former foes would become. At the time of German reunification in 1990, gas from the USSR accounted for more than 30% of the country’s gas consumption. In 2021, Russia supplied around 40% of the European Union’s natural gas, with some smaller countries, such as Latvia, relying almost entirely on Russia for their supply. Germany, with its heavy steel and gas heating, depended on Russia for just under half of its natural gas.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exposed deep cracks in EU energy policy. After EU sanctions against Russia, Russian state-controlled energy company Gazprom announced it was reducing gas exports through one of its major pipelines to around 20% of capacity. The share of Russian gas entering Europe has fallen to 15%, pushing already inflated prices to new highs. In the UK, which is sensitive to gas prices on international markets, average energy bills are expected to reach nearly four times their January 2019 level.

“It is important for the EU to recognize that increasing this dependence on Russia has been a political failure,” says Ganna Gladkykh, a researcher at the European Energy Research Alliance. The continent today faces two challenges. First, a cold winter – or several – with gas supplies stretched to their limit, could mean forced blackouts and industry shutdowns. Second, Europe must reduce its dependence on Russian gas, by striking new agreements with different suppliers and by stepping up its deployment of renewable energies. At the end of this road, Europe could find itself in a new era of energy security, no longer dependent on an unpredictable neighbor to the East, but with a new dynamic that could bring its own problems.

But first: the crunch. At the end of July, member states of the European Union agreed to reduce their gas demand by 15% between August 2022 and March 2023. The measures are voluntary, but the Council of the EU has warned that they could be made mandatory if gas security reached crisis levels. Some countries have already taken small steps to limit energy demand. Cities in Germany are turning off street lights, lowering thermostats and closing swimming pools to reduce reliance on Russian gas. France has banned stores from running the air conditioning when the doors are open, while Spain – which does not import much Russian gas – now prohibits the air conditioning being set below 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit ) in public places.

Natural gas is used in three main ways: to generate electricity in power plants, to heat homes and offices, and in industries such as steel and fertilizer manufacturing. Although there are alternatives to gas in power stations – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has raised the possibility of extending the life of nuclear power stations in order to reduce the use of gas – it is much more difficult to find alternatives. alternatives to gas for industry and heating. The EU also has rules that protect households, hospitals, schools and other essential services from gas rationing measures.

About a quarter of natural gas in the EU is destined for industry, meaning that this sector may well have to bear a large part of the burden of reducing gas, says Chi Kong Chyong, research associate at the University of Cambridge. The EU is encouraging companies to switch to other forms of fuel and has asked member states to draw up lists of companies that should be asked to stop production in the event of a sudden gas shortage. German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp has said it could face curtailed production, but warns it could face shutdowns or damage if there is a gas shortage. Chemical company BASF said it would slow fertilizer production in response to high gas prices.

“What’s really urgent and tricky is the heating,” says Gladkykh. Around half of German homes are heated with gas, which accounts for around a third of the country’s total gas consumption. Because consumers are protected against gas rationing by law, the German government is limited in what it can do to limit gas consumption in homes. But advisers to Germany’s climate and economy minister Robert Habeck say high gas prices are likely to prompt households to cut back anyway. In other words, people will turn down their heating simply because they can’t afford to keep it on.

As the EU tries to reduce gas consumption, it is also frantically trying to fill its gas reserves before winter. It has set itself the goal of recharging storage to 80% capacity by November 1, a goal it is on track to achieve, albeit at a cost 10 times the historical average. All of this means that the EU should be able to weather a tight gas supply winter, but in the long run it will have to find a way to completely reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Even if a ceasefire in Ukraine is negotiated, it is unlikely that the EU will start sourcing gas from Russia again. “It’s hard to imagine us going back to the situation we had before the invasion of Ukraine,” Chyong said. To fill these future gaps, the EU and its Member States are negotiating new gas supply agreements with Azerbaijan and Italy, as well as increasing the capacity to receive liquefied natural gas shipments from the US. United and Qatar. But these are not magic bullets – it will take years to increase gas supplies to new countries.

In May, the European Commission published its plan to end the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The 210 billion euro ($213 billion) plan calls for a huge increase in renewable energy generation, including a program to double the installed capacity of solar panels in the EU by 2025 and to double the rate of installation of heat pumps. The EU currently has a target of producing 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, but the Commission is proposing to raise this target to 45%. The plan also includes support for industries to replace gas with hydrogen, biogas and biomethane to further reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

“This crisis is a time when we should redouble our efforts in our transition to low-carbon energy,” says Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at University College London. Yet the commission’s plan to move away from Russian gas includes an additional €10 billion investment in additional gas infrastructure. It may seem like a small sum, says Gladkykh, but it forces the EU to buy gas for years to come. “We have to be very careful that this doesn’t create new dependencies that don’t lead to net zero goals,” she says.

And in the medium term, households may be forced to reduce their energy consumption, not because of government directives, but because the sheer cost of energy forces people to find ways to reduce their bills. . Heat pumps are much more efficient than gas boilers for heating homes, but the high price of electricity reduces some of the savings benefits. Gas prices are expected to stay high for a few years, Chyong says, and that might be enough to push people to install heat pumps, at least for those who can afford it. According to a study, rising fuel prices could push half of UK households into fuel poverty by next year. By 2030, the EU should have reversed its reliance on Russian gas for good, but getting there will mean several tough years of energy cuts.

Mary I. Bruner