For years, European countries have turned a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations and meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. Their reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was weak and the sanctions were toothless, which only emboldened Putin’s regime to press on with its aggressive and imperialistic external policy.
You see, in 2021, Russia exported around 45% of the EU’s gas imports. That’s more than 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas, worth over $110 billion — and that’s before the energy crisis that caused gas prices to surge up to ten-fold at some point. Cheap Russian gas was just too good to resist, but in continuing in this dysfunctional relationship, Europe had virtually set itself up to become hostage to a power-hungry dictator. So much for Europe’s liberal values.
But the wake-up call came on February 24 when Vladimir Putin stunned the world by doing the unthinkable: launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and starting the bloodiest war Europe has seen since World War II.
Faced with energy blackmail, Europe is keen to make a stand
This time, European countries rallied and, with the help of the United States, levied heavy sanctions. But the truth is that Europe was caught with its pants down and Putin, of course, knew this. His calculation was that the weak West, which would have to face disgruntled voters unhappy with their energy bills, would of course sanction Russia, but put on more of a show than they had before.
Indeed, the initial sanction packages from the European Union had stopped short of banning oil and gas imports. But as the war dragged on and Ukraine surprisingly resisted and even scored decisive victories, Europe eventually addressed the elephant in the room, announcing it would replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports by the end of the year.
The ultimate goal is to become completely energy-independent from Russia by 2027, under the REPowerEU plan released by the European Commission. This plan has been met with quite a lot of criticism, with many energy policy experts and pundits alleging it is too optimistic.
A new study from Binghamton University in New York begs to differ, highlighting a potential optimal pathway through which Europe could completely wean itself from Russian gas and oil.
The researchers led by Binghamton University engineer Neha Patankar found the European Union has four levers at its disposal that it can use to gradually reduce Russian gas dependency while also minimizing economic fallout. These are increasing pipeline gas and liquified natural gas imports from non-Russian sources, reducing gas demand in heating and industry, reducing gas-fired electricity generation, and adopting flexible gas storage targets.
These measures are similar to those outlined in the REPowerEU plan, under which the EU has been working with international partners to secure record levels of liquified natural gas (LNG) imports and higher pipeline gas deliveries. This plan also involves expediting renewable energy generation, increasing the EU’s 2030 target for renewables from 40% to 45%.
To expand renewable energy capacity, the EU wants to double its photovoltaic capacity by 2025 and install 600GW by 2030. For comparison, a very large coal-fired plant has a capacity of one GW. The EU also wants to produce millions of tons of hydrogen and import millions more by 2030 to replace natural gas, coal, and oil. And on top of expanding clean energy capacity, the plan involves a massive overhaul in policy in terms of energy efficiency and energy consumption.
A necessary evil
That sounds quite ambitious and encouraging. However, the new study found that while these goals may be possible, they require a temporary boost in coal and recalibrated gas storage. Additional coal capacity would have to be put in use for at least two winters.
“All successful gas independence pathways increase reliance on coal-fired electricity generation but reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions due to offsets from lower gas demand,” said Patankar, assistant professor in Binghamton University’s Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering.
The EU seems well aware of this necessity. At the end of June, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition gave the green light to restart 27 coal-fired power plants until March 2024. Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, and France have also expressed intent to restart power plants they had previously shut down in order to meet carbon targets.
This would certainly be a major setback for the EU’s carbon reduction targets, but it’s a necessary evil in order to stave off further economic backlash owed to the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s increasingly aggressive attempts at using energy as a form of blackmail.