Following a dramatic pledge yesterday to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by 65% this year and phase out all Russian fossil fuels “well before 2030”, the European Union is under pressure to replace gas from all sources through a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The REPowerEU initiative aims to make up the impact of high energy prices on vulnerable households, replenish the continent’s gas storage facilities in time for next winter, diversify gas supplies, increase use of biomethane and hydrogen, and replace gas in heating and power generation, the European Commission said in a release.
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“We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us,” said EC President Ursula von der Leyen. “We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter, and accelerate the clean energy transition. The quicker we switch to renewables and hydrogen, combined with more energy efficiency, the quicker we will be truly independent and master our energy system.”
“Following the invasion of Ukraine, the case for a rapid clean energy transition has never been stronger and clearer,” the release added. “The new geopolitical and energy market reality requires us to drastically accelerate the clean energy transition and increase Europe’s energy independence from unreliable suppliers and volatile fossil fuels.”
While the commission’s 65% reduction target for Russian gas went well beyond the International Energy Agency’s call for new suppliers to meet about one-third of the continent’s demand, other elements of the REPowerEU plan had been discussed in previous days.
Independent analysts called for a faster, deeper shift off fossil fuels of all kinds, with some of them saying Europe should go 100% renewable by 2035.
“Freedom ‘gas’ goes where the price is the highest,” said Julian Popov, a former Bulgarian minister of environment and water now serving as a fellow of the European Climate Foundation and chair of the Building Performance Institute. “What we need is ‘freedom batteries’, ‘freedom solar panels’, ‘freedom decentralized energy production’—and all these technologies that cumulatively could massively reduce the exposure to Russian gas.”
Europeans “have to deeply rethink our approach to energy security,” he added yesterday. “Every single kilowatt that is produced from wind or solar, or saved, is a kilowatt that is saved from energy dependency (and Europe is highly energy dependent).”
The continent “has already paid dearly for its addiction to fossil fuels, which has driven up energy bills and accelerated the climate crisis,” said Sarah Brown, senior energy and climate analyst at Ember. “REPowerEU represents a critical opportunity to decrease dependence on all fossil fuels and eliminate their crippling costs. Homegrown wind and solar are low-cost and can be quickly deployed. Europe must step up plans to build a resilient, fully clean energy system by 2035 to improve energy security and tackle the climate crisis.”
The emergency effort to rapidly sever Europe’s connection to fossil fuels from Russia “shows that the European Green Deal is now core to the EU’s security strategy,” said Raphael Hanoteaux, senior policy advisor on gas transition politics at the E3G climate consultancy. “To also protect consumers, it is imperative that the short-term strategy of pursuing all options avoids further political lock-ins into fossil fuels in the future.”
Other independent observers urged the EC to pay closer attention to energy efficiency, building retrofits, the impact of volatile gas prices on vulnerable households, and the risks attached to new fossil infrastructure. “Proposals to build new terminals to import LNG [liquefied natural gas] and far-fetched hydrogen plans that fail to deliver would seriously undermine the EU Commission’s plans, and further lock the EU into further dependence on expensive, climate-wrecking fossil gas,” warned Tara Connolly, senior gas campaigner at Global Witness.
Frans Timmermans, the EC’s executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, appeared to agree on the need to push past any plans to replace Russian gas with other imported fossil fuels beyond the short term.
“It is time we tackle our vulnerabilities and rapidly become more independent in our energy choices,” he said in the EC release. “Let’s dash into renewable energy at lightning speed. Renewables are a cheap, clean, and potentially endless source of energy and instead of funding the fossil fuel industry elsewhere, they create jobs here. Putin’s war in Ukraine demonstrates the urgency of accelerating our clean energy transition.”
During an E3G media briefing yesterday, Global Energy Monitor Executive Director Ted Nace said North American gas companies have been having trouble getting investors interested in the new LNG terminals they want to build. “There are tremendous pressures now to use the crisis to change the equation for these terminals,” he said, but “the situation has not fundamentally changed,” with three big barriers to the industry’s expansion dreams: climate regulation, faltering demand for new gas supplies, and competition from increasingly affordable, reliable renewable energy and energy storage.
“For LNG facilities that are under consideration now, investors must bet that the world will not stiffen its regulatory response to climate change, not just this year and not just next year, but during the entire first half of the century,” Nace said. The small slice of new gas demand not already taken up by projects now in development could be covered by one small terminal in Qatar, a lower-cost producer that has been “aggressive” about upping its exports, he added.
And the shifting profile of renewables means that none of the new projects being touted by the fossil industry and their political allies will find the markets they would need to cover their costs.
“The narrative behind LNG expansion has rested heavily on the idea of gas replacing coal in Asia, based on the assumption that renewables cannot replace firm baseload power,” Nace said, and the same logic had applied in Europe. But that idea “is increasingly out of date,” with one analysis last December showing solar photovoltaics and wind supplying firm power at half the cost of gas by 2030.
“That level of competitive pressure on gas within the power sector in less than a decade becomes a big risk for a 30-year investment,” he added. While LNG might once have been considered an easy decision for would-be financiers, “it is definitely not boring and safe these days.”
Mahyar Sorour, deputy legislative director at the U.S. Sierra Club, warned that fossil companies are “seeking to exploit this crisis to increase their bottom line,” after repeatedly using geopolitical strife “to line their pockets by locking in decades of dependence on fossil fuels.” She cast the current round of gas shortages and spiking home heat and gasoline costs as “symptoms of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.”