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‘Take that, Putin!’: Europe looks to wean itself quickly from Russian energy

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While an April cold spell in Western Europe has sent temperatures diving nearly 30 degrees Fahrenheit below normal, public campaigns to wean the European Union from its dependence on Russian energy have urged citizens to lower their thermostats, don “Pullovers against Putin” and “Freeze for Ukraine.”

Margrethe Vestager, vice president of the European Commission, further urged EU citizens to take shorter showers. "When you turn off the water, say 'Take that, Putin!'” she said last week, referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Similar sentiments have been echoing across Europe since Putin greenlighted a military invasion of Ukraine in late February, and have only been amplified as evidence of Russian atrocities against civilians continues to emerge.

President Vladimir Putin, hands clasped, at a conference table, with pencils and a pen at his side.
President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on agriculture by video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on April 5. (Mikhail Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

“Buying Russian oil and gas is financing war crimes,” Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said this week, as Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, announced that it was halting all energy imports from Russia.

Reversing course is no easy matter, however, given that the 27-country EU spends roughly $300 million on Russian energy every single day.

The rapid about-face in attitudes toward drawing on Russian resources, which, earlier this year, was regarded simply as a given in the EU energy equation, is prompting the EU bloc to attempt to voluntarily reduce Russian fossil fuel purchases by two-thirds this year and phase them out altogether by 2030. Unlike the U.S., however, the EU has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia’s gas and oil sector.

Whether because of the prospect of future embargoes, Putin’s whims or the high demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG), the potential scarcity of gas in Europe is now considered a crisis. This has spurred calls to speed up deployment of the solar and wind energy facilities that are key to Europe’s Green Deal, the world’s most ambitious proposed transition to renewables, whose goal is to see the EU carbon neutral by 2050. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, jumped into the conversation while visiting Berlin this week, tweeting on Monday that “Spain should build a massive solar array. Could power all of Europe."

In response, Pedro Sánchez, prime minister of Spain, where renewables provide 45% of electricity, invited the American billionaire to visit, tweeting, “In Spain, we welcome investors."

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez talks in front of some uniformed guards in helmets.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez speaks to journalists before a meeting at the Elysée Presidential Palace in Paris on March 21. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

To be sure, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is accelerating the push toward green energy. “Let's dash into renewable energy at lightning speed,” Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal, recently urged. “Putin's war in Ukraine demonstrates the urgency of accelerating our clean energy transition.”

Despite ever-growing enthusiasm for solar and wind power, which already provide over 38% of electricity in the EU, according to the London energy think tank Ember, in the next two years energy from renewables won’t be enough to fill the potential gap caused by reduced trade with Russia, which normally supplies 40% of EU natural gas. To make up for the shortfall, some countries are looking into extending the life of coal-fired power plants, a move drastically at odds with the Green Deal’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

"We're going to see extended use of coal power stations, and we're going to miss our climate targets in the electricity sector in the short term, which is not great,” Prof. Johan Lilliestam, who leads the Energy Transitions and Public Policy group at IASS in Potsdam, Germany, told Yahoo News. However, the short-term use of coal can be offset by emissions trading schemes that cap the allowable amount of emissions, he added. So while a limited-duration increase in coal use in the near future “not beautiful," he said, "it's also not a disaster."

A large tanker docked at an importation terminal, is connected to the shore by a series of pylons raised above the water.
The tanker Gaslog Gibraltar Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is docked at the Grain LNG importation terminal, operated by National Grid Plc, on the Isle of Grain near Rochester, U.K., on March 30. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The frenzied EU scramble for liquefied natural gas worries Brussels-based Raphael Hanoteaux, senior policy adviser on gas politics at the energy think tank E3G. “It’s certainly good to hear the European Commission saying that the fastest, easiest and most affordable way to decrease our consumption of fossil fuels is to speed up the Green Deal,” he told Yahoo News, and to more rapidly build up solar, wind, even biogas and green hydrogen. “But the other side of the coin is the European Commission and member states are saying we are going to need a lot of LNG.” The EU, he noted, is figuring out “how to reduce our dependency on Russian gas, but not on gas in general. It means we’re opening up new fossil fuel dependencies — potentially with the U.S. or Qatar.”

In the short term, more expensive LNG is the easiest substitute for piped-in Russian gas. “But LNG does not bring anything good or anything new to the table,” Hanoteaux said. “It’s almost a trap to invest in it.” He remains wary of building pricy new infrastructure for LNG, which is cooled to minus 260 degrees F. for easy transport and requires special ships, ports and terminals to “re-gasify” the liquid to its original state. Some EU countries, including Germany, don’t have LNG ports and now plan to quickly build them.

An abandoned idea for a gas pipeline to France from Spain, which holds the most LNG ports in Europe, is back on the table, said Hanoteaux. There is also talk of retrofitting existing pipelines that are normally used to pump gas from Germany to France, so they would be capable of reverse flows from France to Germany. The EU is also considering purchasing its own LNG ships to transport the condensed gas.

This solution runs the risk that once billion-dollar investments are made in the LNG infrastructure, a tendency to “lock in the economy” will take over, cultivating either a dependency on natural gas for much longer than needed or leaving a slew of very expensive “stranded assets.”

Ships loaded with containers sail into the port of Rotterdam.
Ships sail into the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands ahead of tanks in February this year. (Federico Gambarini/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

“If we don’t have any Russian gas tomorrow, we will need LNG,” Hanoteaux said. “It can bring relief in the very short term. But the question we have is [how LNG affects] the Green Deal, and the more interesting question is what do we should do in the medium term.”

Titled “EU Can Stop Russian Gas Imports by 2025,” a report released in March by E3G and the energy think tanks Ember, Bellona Europa and RAP asserts that by “accelerating the deployment of renewable electricity [from wind and solar], energy efficiency and electrification,” Europe could kick the Russian energy habit much more rapidly than anticipated, without new gas infrastructure or prolonging the use of coal-fired plants.

“On a three- to five-year horizon, clean energy solutions are able to deliver for a cheaper price and on a more affordable long-term basis than any other strategy,” Hanoteaux said of the report.

“This whole episode has quickly shown gas to be a real vulnerability,” Thorfinn Stainforth, an energy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, told Yahoo News. “In the long run, it has taught us that fossil fuels are a vulnerability, because you’re dependent on whomever you’re importing them from.” The war in Ukraine, he added, also illustrates security questions about nuclear power. “Nuclear plants are so centralized that they can be captured by your enemy,” as in the case of Chernobyl and Enerhodar, Europe’s biggest nuclear facility, which last month caught fire after Russians shelled it. “A distributed network of renewables,” he said, “is harder to capture.”

Nevertheless, both France and the U.K. are unveiling plans to bolster their nuclear fleets. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has boasted that the U.K. may have seven new plants by 2050.

Arrays of pipelines of different gauges at the Enagás liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal. (Albert Gea/Reuters)
The Enagás liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal at Zona Franca in Barcelona, Spain, March 29. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Abruptly cutting off Russian energy, which has prompted a frantic search for substitutes, does have an upside, Brussels-based Roland Freudenstein, vice president of the think tank GLOBSEC in Brussels, told Yahoo News. “First of all, we will be forced to reduce private energy consumption, which is something [environmentalists] have preached for decades,” he said. “In the long run, the crisis is good news for the Green Deal, because it means that we will have to switch more intensively and faster to renewables than we were even planning to. In the short run, it’s bad, because we will probably have to use more fossil energy than we hoped and planned for.”

"The climate crisis and the gas crisis have the same long-term solutions,” said Lilliestam. “Namely, renewables and efficiency. But we need to make sure that they're also synergistic on the way, that policies responding to each separate crisis don't stand in the way of each other as we build the new system — and that is a problem that I can anticipate.” Beyond that, he said, Europe needs to insulate houses, install heat pumps and refurbish its transportation system. “We need electric vehicles, we need trains, we need buses, we need bike lanes, we need windmills. We need more photovoltaic, we need batteries. We need European cooperation in the electricity market. All of these things are the solutions to both crises.”

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, with beard and mustache, speaks as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian looks on.
Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis at the podium, flanked by France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, at a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vilnius, Lithuania, on April 1. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

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What happened this week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.