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Energy Policy in Europe and the impact of Ukraine War


Dr Hamid Pouran, Program Leader for MSc Sustainability and Climate Change at University of Wolverhampton shares his recent interview with Professor Michael LaBelle author of Energy Cultures, Technology, Justice and Geopolitics in Eastern Europe about the Energy Policy in Europe and the impact of the Ukraine War.

Hamid: What is energy security and what does it mean in Europe?

Michael: Energy security is not security of supply. Security of supply would be do we have enough resources e.g., electricity to support the current energy system. The concept of energy security itself is more related to national security and ensuring that there is a sufficient amount of security apparatus e.g., hard power, national sovereignty and viability/aims of the state itself.

Hamid: What types of the energy resources do we have in Europe? Where do these come from?

Michael: In a sense we could actually characterise Europe as energy poor and this is the big problem with Europe and particularly Western Europe.  Though a country like Norway has oil but Europe traditionally has been and is energy poor and this is why it’s so reliant on import. It’s how it shapes its international relations and how the industry itself is viable and competitive on global level.

Hamid: Can new energies like renewables make Europe energy independent/sufficient.

Michael: The renewables will be much more localised, much more decentralised so it could really build up much more energy secure energy system. And one that is more about how people use and perceive energy system for example solar panels on houses is very important but equally important is I would say the energy efficiency of the houses themselves and how people interact with the built environment; their houses or their work.  The whole energy use, the energy demand that actually people interact with is very important when we talk about the energy system and renewables. Also another important factor in the energy system are other sources of energy e.g., oil, gas, non-renewable energy. They still make up a large component and will in the short and medium term influence the energy system. So, yes we need renewable energies and basically it is the only way forward specially for an energy secure energy system but we also have to acknowledge that non-renewables even if they can be phased out at faster pace still will have a major influence on the energy market.

Hamid: Can Europe be independent from importing energy from Russia in the near future?

Michael: We can say the cost is too high, but also some countries like Poland and Hungary are highly dependent on importing energy from Russia and their refineries set up for Russian oil so for them to shift away though is possible but takes time, they have to redo refineries for example. The same is for gas and the necessity to move away from gas cannot be done overnight, so the technical factor needs to be considered. For example for the UK it’s easy to diversify as it’s not dependent on importing energy from Russia and it’s a minor inconvenience but for countries like Poland and Hungary there is still necessity at the moment to rely on Russia.

Hamid: How the current events affect development of renewables including investment in this sector in Europe and does it affect public interest in nuclear energy too?

Michael: From the policy perspective we could say yes, the rhetoric and policy and the goals of the policies have been ramped up since February 24th so we can say there is a shift or speeding up of the existing plans that were in place and so now what we have to see is what exact policies will be implemented to encourage more renewables to be built. That would include wind, solar and of course investment in the energy efficiency that makes a huge difference. However, the investments in renewable energies were slowing down and the EU governments have to get more serious about it and make this transition happen. The biggest difference now is this perception that gas can be used as a transition fuel. The role that gas was foreseen to play was to replace coal and nuclear in this transition but it’s quite clear that while there may be some industrial process when gas needed and that can stay for longer but high price LNG gas in European market is just too expensive for the households. It’s also too expensive for the industry to be competitive on the global market. In the US they can rely on the domestic gas for industrial processes. Europe is really challenged, basically gas can be used from domestic sources e.g., from North Sea so some pipeline gas but to replace all the gas from Russia by LNG, there is not enough capacity it’s just simply too expensive.

Hamid: Can we say that gas will remain an important part of Europe energy portfolio?

Michael: No, let me be controversial. In the current war with Russia in Ukraine I would say the response by all countries just demonstrates that the age of fossil fuels needs to end. It’s not just Russia that acts as aggressor, there are other states that do not act in a democratic way and do we want to  keep our democracies built on authoritarian regimes around the world that do not respect human right. The faster the gas, as much as possible as the technology does need to catch up, and all fossil fuels phased out of the European energy system the much better and more secure European homeowners will be and actually more competitive European industry will be.

Hamid: Is it acceptable to say that Europe needs to invest more in nuclear because it’s safe, on demand and relatively clean compared to other resources and make Europe independent from importing gas?

Michael: The way you phrase it makes sense, but there is another reality. The current market signal for electricity would be yes let’s build nuclear power, the reality and current crisis also indicate that we need some secure, large baseload power for electricity. However, the fact that it takes more than a decade to build a nuclear power plant and the huge amount of money and cost overrun for nuclear power really doesn’t make it a viable technology to invest in. I would say nuclear can fill a need in the energy system for baseload generation but the downside of it and the length of time it takes to develop nuclear power plants it’s almost too long and becomes even more uncompetitive compared to wind and solar. It seems to be more realistic that a viable energy storage will be coming in for grid stability and that’s more likely than a large scale nuclear program being successful.

Hamid: If we invest in new energy storage technologies and batteries are we better off compared to investing in nuclear energy?

Michael: We have the renewables like wind and solar, we haven’t yet utilised energy efficiency to the extent that we can do. The big key for the grid stability is the investment in storage, there is lithium ion batteries but also other forms of storage that have or being developed already and just more large scale trial projects are necessary and those can come into the market.  What’s also important is the regulation to encourage and incentivise and actually pay for the storage technology. The market and regulations need to change to ensure those that investors and companies that are building storage facilities are paid for their facilities and for operating in the grid.

Hamid: So it’s not only the energy generations that matters, energy efficiency is crucial for us too?

Michael: So, we always talk about the generation side of energy system and it gets the most attention and investment but on the flip side the energy efficiency already has proven technologies, there is just lack of will and effective government policies in almost every country to properly assist homeowners and businesses to reduce energy consumption and of course it takes a lot of behaviour change. The transportation section is also important as well as how the built environment is made e.g., whether people could walk to the store, walk to the work or they need to drive. The current energy and high petrol crisis really can influence the behaviour and we shouldn’t use it double down or to prolong fossil fuels rather we should take the money and the urgency of it and invest in proven technologies that reduce our usage of it and are much more sustainable for the environment.

Hamid: Would you have any final comment?

Michael: I would just say there is a different kind of perspective depending on how close you are to the war and there is a different sense of urgency and I see critical response in countries, in one hand it’s united as the European countries are unified through the European Union but at the national level there is also differences of opinion, whether we should rely on Russian oil and gas, in short, medium and long term. Overall we have to really interpret the current crisis as something that built overtime and fossil fuels is not the answer. We need to think about the homeowners, those that need to drive their cars but cannot afford electric cars and rely on fossil fuels to live and not live in poverty and fossil and energy efficiency and renewable energy is the answer.

Hamid: Do you think the current energy crisis is a ‘wake-up call’ for Europe?

Michael: I think it is. Europe has had these energy goals, which are more ambitious than many regions and countries, but instead of considering unproven technologies we need to consider what has worked to date like solar and wind. We have to also look at what we haven’t been doing where there are opportunities and that’s how we need to address the current crisis.

Michael is Associate professor at Central European University and a visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. To find out more about Michael and his expertise, click here.

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