How (not) to manage the energy transition without Russian gas
Almost one year after the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, EU countries have dramatically reduced their dependency on Russian gas. In January 2023, it was less than 10% of the total supply, down from over 30% in 2021. Due to mild weather, gas storages remain sufficiently filled while increasing imports mainly from Norway and via LNG from the US or Qatar. Putin’s idea to weaponize energy against EU countries has instead backfired, and Europeans will get through the winter even if prices remain high - this is good news.
However, the current scarcity of gas is less good news for our energy transition towards renewables. Wind and solar powers share an unpleasant drawback: the reliance on gas as backup power during times when wind and sun do not deliver. Gas turbines are the easiest to adjust to unpredictable renewables, and consequently, it was the German decision to phase out nuclear power in 2011 that enormously increased the dependency on Russian gas.
In 2022, many EU Member States increasingly turned from gas towards coal. Germany alone reinstated almost 10 GW of old coal and lignite plants to replace gas. The result: more coal and lignite in electricity generation and rising CO2 emissions, making it one of the most carbon-intensive electricity mixes in the EU. That is rather remarkable, considering the investments of more than 400 billion Euros into wind and solar over the past 20 years in Germany alone. The reason: Wind and solar typically only average output of less than 20% of their installed capacity throughout the year and in winter, often generate very little electricity over long periods. All European countries that managed to decarbonize their electricity did so either with hydropower or nuclear, or combined. To achieve a similar emission reduction with wind and solar power is a much more challenging endeavour due to the required backup power.
After the promotion of wind and solar power, a new hype has risen in Europe and globally: hydrogen. There is no doubt that green hydrogen will have an important role to play in the ongoing transformation. It must replace coal and gas in steel and cement production (both enormous sources of emissions) and replace grey hydrogen from fossil fuels in the chemical industry and fertilizer production. But can it become the golden bullet with the potential to replace gas in energy generation to fill the gaps caused by intermittent renewables? I’m afraid this will not work simply because of physics. Hydrogen produced with renewables in Africa or the Middle East requires being cooled down to -253 C° and compressed into a tanker (needing almost three times as much volume as LNG). After the transformation back into electricity in Europe, between 60 and 70% of the initial energy is lost in the process – hydrogen can be a method of energy storage, but in comparison to hydropower or batteries, it is an extremely inefficient one. Moreover, the fact that it’s the smallest element on earth and highly leaky causes concerns regarding its indirect contribution to the greenhouse effect. Hydrogen can also be converted into ammonia, which means even more loss of its initial energy potential.
This leaves us with nuclear power to provide reliable baseload energy. In contrast to wind and solar, nuclear power is carbon-free energy that is dispatchable. In the past years, we can observe a renaissance of nuclear all around the world, also in Europe. Many countries in Europe are now in the process of planning or building new nuclear power plants (NPPs). According to all statistics, nuclear power is carbon-free and, alongside wind, the safest source of electricity generation. According to studies, toxic emissions from coal power plants lead to around 23.000 premature deaths per year in the EU alone – far more than nuclear power since it was developed. Because of its enormous energy density, nuclear power also requires much fewer raw materials, such as copper, iron or concrete. It also doesn’t scatter large parts of our natural spaces with energy installations.
So how come we don’t build more NPPs? Because unfortunately, in many countries, the people who tell us rightly to listen to science when it comes to climate change are the same ones who have been fear-mongering about nuclear power for decades. For some, there is also an implicit degrowth agenda behind it: We should use less energy and pay a lot for it. This is a wrong approach: switching to electric cars and heat pumps will require abundant electricity to power this transformation. Abundant and affordable energy has been the key to creating the prosperity we enjoy today. If Europe wants to keep its industrial base and avoid energy poverty, the offer and demand for electricity must match. That won’t be possible by only relying on weather-dependent energy sources – and green hydrogen will be too expensive and tricky to handle to fill the gap alone.
In order not to continue burning coal or lignite to keep the lights on, we will have to give nuclear energy a more important role in the energy mix – not only by extending the lifetime of existing plants but also by planning and building new ones. The anti-nuclear orthodoxy of many environmentalists is preventing effective decarbonization – it is time to tackle climate change without taboos and with all technologies available instead of conducting policies based on wishful thinking.
*All views expressed in this piece are of the authors and thus do not necessary represent the official position of GLOBSEC or its partners.
Associate Senior Fellow