Before the first great pandemic of the twenty-first century played havoc with life as all have known it in the Information Age, some European countries seemed on the verge of upending the hydrocarbon economy that has powered the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
And now, as the world that was in lockdown starts to unlock, the Europeans are facing what is touted as an “energy crisis” thanks to a perfect storm of natural and manmade events.
“Resurgent energy demand post-Covid, extreme weather events (unprecedented heatwaves and prolonged winters), supply chain disruptions, and poor regional and global stockpiling have all contributed to Europe’s current crisis,” writes market analyst Ariel Cohen at Forbes. “Russia’s supremo Vladimir Putin may have a reason to pop a champagne bottle in view of the EU’s sanctions on the Kremlin. He says that Europe had created a self-inflicted wound. He may be right.”
Putin was the man in charge of Russia’s zigging toward increased production of natural gas when Europe was zagging toward renewable energy because of concerns about global warming due to an atmospheric carbon-dioxide build-up linked to the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas.
As a result of this move, Putin now has significant parts of Europe dependent on Russian gas.
“Supplies of natural gas are so tight that prices are up by almost 400 percent since the start of the year. Utilities are switching to power generated from coal and even fuel oil, two of the world’s dirtiest fuels. That has some accusing Russia – which supplies 35 percent of the European Union’s gas imports – of using energy as a weapon,” Foreign Policy reported this week. “It didn’t help calm waters when the Russian ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, recently suggested a linkage between gas supplies and Europe’s behavior, hinting that the gas shortage could get resolved if Europe stopped treating Russia as an ‘adversary.'”
Putin, for his part, called the accusation that Russia is restraining gas supplies “entirely groundless bloviation.”
Whatever the case politically, the physical problem is a simple one: storage.
Wind and sunlight can produce a lot of power, but there are problems storing it, not to mention predictable interruptions like night and dead air. Water can be stored and reused, but hydropower has a somewhat dirty reputation thanks to dams in the U.S. Pacific Northwest that helped make a mess of salmon runs.
France’s response to the problematic problem of dirty fossils versus clean, renewable energy was to go nuclear. About 70 percent of that country’s electricity – necessary to power electric cars, heat homes and power industry in a “clean economy” – is now produced by nuclear power plants.
Most other countries, however, fear the potential for a nuclear disaster more than the threat of climate change and thus the nuclear option remains widely unpopular.
All of which has the Russians gambling fossil fuels are going to be around for a long time still although anyone who has regularly been using cordless power tools for the past decade knows well the slow but steady improvement in batteries.
There are now, too, companies looking at using surplus renewable power – say wind power that isn’t needed in the moment – to split water into oxygen and clean-burning hydrogen, which can be stored like any other gas for future use.
Renewable energy production will continue to grow in the future because the wind and sunlight free, but what Europe is experiencing now is the storage problem destined to plague its growth.
“Renewable energy became the biggest source of electricity in the European Union in 2020, beating fossil fuels for the first time,” The Verge raved as the start of this year. “Germany and Spain also hit that milestone individually last year – so did the UK, which officially left the EU in January 2020.”
Unfortunately, the big growth was in wind and solar which present the biggest storage problems.
“Much like refrigerators enabled food to be stored for days or weeks so it didn’t have to be consumed immediately or thrown away, energy storage lets individuals and communities access electricity when they need it most – like during outages, or when the sun isn’t shining,” notes the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Storage can reduce demand for electricity from inefficient, polluting plants that are often located in low-income and marginalized communities. Storage can also help smooth out demand, avoiding price spikes for electricity customers.”
Enter the Russians, who understand state capitalism, recognize the comparatively easy storability of their gas and have less reason to fear climate change than most any other area of the globe.
The largest country in the world, Russia has the longest Arctic coastline and the largest Arctic landmass, about 5 million square kilometers or approximately 1.9 million square miles.
Credit the long, cold Arctic winters for keeping the population low, if you love the wilderness, or blame it if you prefer the bustle of the cities in which eight out of 10 Americans now live.
“Siberia, like ‘the cold,’ has for centuries been synonymous with the very image of Russia,” Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill of the Brookings institute observed almost two decades ago. “From the tsars, who first planted the seeds of cities in Siberia, to the Soviet central planners, who moved masses of people and industry into its vast and remote regions, the exploration and development of Siberia have shaped Russia’s sense of national identity. Siberia’s ‘untamed frontier’ has long promised wealth and opportunity for the rest of Russia.”
They went on to characterize that promise of wealth and opportunity as foolishness.
“Thanks to Soviet industrialization and mass settlement of Siberia, much of Russia’s population today is scattered over a vast landmass in large but isolated cities and towns,” they wrote. “Inadequate road, rail, air, and other communication links hobble efforts to connect those population centers, promote interregional trade, and develop markets. About one in ten Russians live and work in almost impossibly cold Siberian cities, places where average January temperatures range from -15 to -45 degrees Celsius (5 to minus-49 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of their location, these cities still depend heavily, as they did in the Soviet era, on central government subsidies for fuel, food, and transportation. Costs of living are as much as four times higher than elsewhere in the Russian Federation, while costs of industrial production are sometimes higher still.”
The duo pretty thoroughly trashed the Siberian dream of Russians.
“…Pumping large subsidies into Siberia deprives the rest of Russia of the chance for economic growth,” they wrote.
“To become competitive economically and to achieve sustainable growth, Russia must modernize and connect its physically vast but misdeveloped economy,” they wrote.
Fixing Siberia’s infrastructure problems, they wrote, “would simply improve the connections between towns, cities, and enterprises that should never have been where they are. It would make places more livable where, from an economic point of view, most people should not live to begin with.”
Putin – a product of that old Soviet system and the man who “rears his head” over the Arctic as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once so famously and hysterically observed – clearly had a different view of the situation.
Under his leadership, Russia has aggressively moved to tap oil and natural gas resources in Siberia – global warming be damned – and pioneer the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic coast while at the same time building pipelines to deliver oil and gas to Asia.
“Russia is one of the three biggest oil exporters in the world, alongside Saudi Arabia and the United States,” OilPrice.com noted in May. “It has enough oil to keep producing at current rates at least until 2080, with enough gas reserves to last for another 103 years. And the state is pouring billions – $110 billion to be precise – into the development of new oil reserves in eastern Siberia to tap 100 million tons of new crude annually. That’s about a fifth of the country’s annual output in 2019.”
“In the first eight months of the year, China spent some $837.32 million on Russian gas, which is a 98.94 percent increase compared to the corresponding period last year, the Chinese General Customs Administration said on Monday.”
China, like Russia, publicly proclaims a desire to join the battle to slow global warming, but its action say something else. China more than a decade ago surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest greenhouse-gas producing country.
And China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, continue to creep upward.
In 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported, “most economies saw a decline of five to 10 percentage points compared to recent rates of emissions growth, with lesser declines in Brazil and most notably, China. The only major economy to record an increase in annual CO2 emissions in 2020, China’s emissions growth slowed by just one percentage point compared with its average rate over the 2015 to 2019 period.”
U.S. emissions dropped 10 percent in the same period, and those in the United Kingdom fell `even more.
The United Kingdom – formerly the British Empire and the dominant world force from the sixteenth into the twentieth centuries – has promised to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 and was applauded for getting more than halfway there last year.
“The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51 percent below 1990 levels, according to new Carbon Brief analysis,” Carbon Brief headlined. “This means the UK is now halfway to meeting its target of ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050.
“The milestone was reached after a record-breaking 11` percent fall in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020,” Simon Evans wrote in the story below before adding the all-important caveat, “largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
The pandemic slowed the carbon-dioxide spewing engines of commerce and significantly altered the way the Brits got about. They started working more from home than driving to offices, and when they did go there or elsewhere, they traveled less by motor vehicle and more on foot or by bicycle because of their government’s encouragement of “active travel” to increase “social distancing.”
“COVID-19 has radically changed our travel habits in just a matter of weeks. Walking and cycling are up, as people enjoy their daily exercise or take essential journeys they might otherwise have made by public transport. Cycle-to-work schemes have seen a 200 percent increase in the number of bicycle orders, while car use is roughly 40 percent of what it was in mid-February as more people work from home. Air pollution in cities has duly fallen rapidly, with nitrogen oxide pollution down 70 percent in Manchester, England,” The Conversation reported in May 2020.
“Transport is the UK’s most polluting sector, so encouraging more people to keep walking and cycling after the pandemic would benefit the environment, as well as make cities healthier for the people who live in them.”
But these weren’t the only reasons for the UK’s drop in production of the gases that power the atmospheric “greenhouse effect” that has kept the planet warm enough to be habitable for humans for 200,000 to 300,000 years, but which many now believe could make it uninhabitable in the near future as the planet steadily warms.
The government backed a plan for a “Green Industrial Revolution” to power the country with wind, water and sunshine to fight “climate change” and to take advantage of, according to a government white paper, the “huge opportunity for both growth and job creation. The global markets for low-carbon technologies, electric vehicles and clean energy are fast growing: zero-emission vehicles could support 40,000 jobs by 2030, with exports of new technologies such as CCUS (carbon capture usage and storage) having the potential to add £3.6 billion GVA (gross value added) by 2030. The time is now to seize these opportunities.”
The time may still be now – some in fossil-fuel short EU countries are arguing the current energy crisis only underlines the need to speed the move to renewables – but the crisis of the moment also makes clear the bumps in the road, more of which can be expected ahead.
Oil and gas are wonderfully convenient sources of power, and there’s nothing much more than convenience that the citizens of the modern world now desire.