Why we need to Rewire Europe and learn from past energy policy mistakes
Politics and energy have never been far apart. In fact, if you look at history, energy is often the reason why war have started (think the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003). Energy access has also been the reason why wars have been won and lost (WW2 for instance). What the Russian invasion of Ukraine is showing is how utterly dependent Europe is on Russia for not only natural gas, but also oil and coal. And what those tanks have done is to brake the trust between Germany and Russia. That is a real game changer for European geopolitics and energy. This begs the question what should Europe do? In a nutshell, we need to REWIRE EUROPE.
Europe needs bold ideas that help it in the short and long term and it needs to be brave in the implementation of these ideas. In the short term, Europe needs to:
1. Reduce demand for natural gas – We may need to pay customers to not use gas and to reduce the usage of natural gas in the electricity system. This may mean keeping nuclear and coal plants running for the foreseeable future. Practically, Germany and Belgium may both have to delay closures of nuclear plants and the same may need to happen for coal plants across the continent.
2. Move energy purchases away from Russia – This is not an easy task given that over one third of European fossil fuels come from Russia but the reality is that every euro spent on Russian fuels can be used to strengthen the ability of that country to make war. Practically, we may need to rethink the closure of the North Sea gas wells but also be prepared to import energy at higher prices from other parts of the world.
3. Fill up storage tanks – Europe needs to buy as much as it can in terms of uranium and fossil fuels to ensure we have enough energy to keep the lights on and our economies working. Practically, this means working very closely with other partner nations such as the United States and Australia.
4. Help energy sensitive customers – Wholesale energy prices have been on the rise for months and at current levels make European industries (particularly chemicals and steel production) uncompetitive globally. In addition, we will see the higher wholesale prices being passed onto retail customers which is going to have a severe impact on inflation and consumer spending but in particular the lower income groups in our society. Practically, governments will need to help people and companies through these difficult times.
However, these are only reactionary solutions that help us over the next 12 months. Beyond that we need bigger, braver and more sustainable change. We need a Rewiring Europe programme that unites Europe and makes it stronger. To do this we need to immediately begin to:
1. Deeply electrify the energy system – The quickest way to decarbonise is to electrify as much as possible of the energy system. That is also the most sustainable way to ween off Russian fossil fuels and to build an energy independent Europe built around low cost renewables and other clean technologies. To do that we need radical regulatory changes to ensure a speedy and low cost transition. This starts with improving planning laws to allow quick build out of renewables and the necessary grid infrastructure.
2. Enable low cost electricity – Today across many European countries (Denmark and Germany for instance) electricity is the most expensive way to power your car and heat your home. The recent surges in natural gas prices have now made electricity even more expensive. There are a whole pile of measures than can be put in place, such as grid regulatory reforms, which force competition, and cost efficiency improvements to wholesale power market reforms, which move away from the marginal cost pricing whereby the most expensive power plant determines the price for everyone. In addition, taxes and other charges should be removed to ensure that electricity becomes the cheapest form of energy. That will in turn give the financial incentives customers need to make long-term investment decisions.
3. Invest in clean energy and storage – There is still a large amount of European electricity produced with fossil fuels, most of which is imported. If we are to decarbonise and gain energy independence, then Europe needs to invest in renewables. The advantage of renewables is that the resources (be that wind, solar, waves or geothermal heat) are all local. They are also clean but we need to put in the incentive structures to ensure the cost effective and speedy buildout of this infrastructure. However many of these technologies, although low cost, are not able to produce energy 24/7 which is why we need storage. The good news is that we have lots of fossil fuels storage which can be used if needed but there needs to be investments in other storage technologies such as batteries and fossil fuel alternatives such as efuels which can be stored in existing storage capabilities.
4. Embrace energy efficiency – the majority of energy is wasted in the form of lost heat. Electrification is a much more efficient way to use energy, noting that an electric car uses one third the amount of energy of an ICE car. But electrification is not enough. We need to invest heavily in improving the quality of our building stock as well as other regulations and measures to reduce energy consumption.
5. Cut demand for fossil fuels – Higher prices for fossil fuels will help to push customers to seek other alternatives. Incentives need to be put in place to ensure any new investments go into cleaner alternatives such as heat pumps and EVs. In addition, it may well be that Europe needs to bring in a border carbon adjustment tax to ensure that European jobs and emissions are not simply exported to another part of the world.
6. Change how Europe does innovation – The energy transition is a huge opportunity for European businesses and innovators, but sadly to date Europe and all the various countries have been very bad at commercialising energy technologies. This is particularly the case in two key energy transition technologies: solar and lithium-ion batteries where Europe has been at the forefront in terms of innovation but where we have no global leaders. Part of the issue is the university approach to innovation which is not commercially focussed enough. This needs to change and EU and government money really needs to be much more strategically focussed rather than the sprinkler approach that is currently used.
7. Bring together national security, decarbonization and industrial interests - energy security has always been a part of national security but thanks to the onset of US shale oil and gas, the general view has become that we live in a world flush with cheap oil and gas. The current crisis is an eye opener to Europe which now needs to make energy independence a core focus going forward. Given that Europe has not a lot of fossil fuel resources that means a need to focus on locally available resources such as solar. That is good for decarbonisation BUT here the issue is that nearly all solar panels come out of China which again is not good for national security or Europe’s industrial future. Thinking strategically about national security and decarbonization would enable Europe to build competitive advantages in critical industries for the 21st century.
Finally, as Winston Churchill was working on the establishment of the United Nations after WW2, he famously said "Never let a good crisis go to waste." We should not and we should focus on Rewiring Europe.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Gerard Reid is a leading authority on energy and mobility and the co-host of "Redefining Energy", the #1 most listened to podcast on energy topics. He is also founding partner of Alexa Capital, Senior Fellow at the Institute of the Environment of the University of Minnesota and a member of the Global Future Council on Advanced Energy Technologies at the World Economic Forum.