After more than a decade of misty-eyed yearning after renewables at the expense (literally) of pretty much everything else, the Europe Union finds itself in a right state. (OK, I know the EU is not a State much as some would like it to be.) The EU’s dependence on imported energy grew from 47.8% in 2000 to 54.1% in 2010. And in 2013 the single biggest source of EU’s imports of hard coal (27.1% of total EU-27 imports), crude oil (34.5%) and natural gas (31.8%) was the Russian Federation.
Why should we bother in the UK, since we still have some reserves of our own and get most of our imports from Norway? Well, the situation in the UK with regard to energy import dependency has changed more rapidly than in any other member of the European Union. While the EU-27’s energy production fell by 12% between 2000 and 2010 (from 941 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent) to 831 mtoe), that of the UK fell by 45% (from 270 mtoe to 148 mtoe). Although energy imports per head of the population are still below the EU average the UK has moved from being a net energy exporter in 2002 to a net energy importer in 2010, a trend which will persist as North Sea gas reserves continue to run down. And if Russia’s gas gets cut off, say, the increased competition for other sources would inevitably push the price we had to pay through the roof.
How has Europe addressed this gathering cloud? Germany shut down half of its nuclear stations, with the rest to go over the next eight years or so. Although it is building quite a lot of new coal plant (and has increased its carbon dioxide emissions by some 5% over the last three years for those who care about such things – which I do) and makes quite a bit of wind and solar energy when the wind blows and the sun comes out, inevitably its needs for imported gas have grown considerably. In 2011 Germany was actually a net gas exporter (producing 10 bcm – billion cubic metres – and consuming 7.2 bcm); in 2013 it was practically neutral (producing 8.2 bcm and consuming 8.1 bcm). Germany is in the fortunate position of being able to outbid its neighbours for power supplies when the wind is still and the sun in, and to dump dangerous surplus electricity from wind and solar at times when supply outstrips demand on its neighbours. (Dangerous? A system with too much electricity is as bad as one with too little, being susceptible to power surges which can blow electronic equipment and ultimately melt the wires, at staggering cost economically and socially.)
We can’t just blame the Germans. When a country does try to improve security and environmental performance by striking a deal to build new nuclear plant (which does not release significant amounts of carbon, nor does it depend on Mr Putin being in a good mood or the wind blowing at convenient speeds) along comes the Competition Commission to delay matters by many months in a ‘State Aid’ investigation.
So we’re pretty much stuck. We must I think hope that fracking is going to give us another breathing space but it is hard, at this point, to imagine that fracking in our relatively crowded island will repace the vast reserves of North Sea gas which we once had but which are now running short so quickly.
Eyeball to eyeball with Putin – we threaten severe sanctions, he smirks and reminds us what happens when he turns off the gas taps to Ukraine, as he does every couple of years or so. Who would blink first? I have my fears. But we Europeans have only ourselves to blame for the weak hand we hold.