Ukraine Shines A Spotlight On Europe’s Failed Energy Mix

Windmill and cooling tower in Doel, Belgium

On 2 March 1979, the No. 2 Reactor Unit on Three Mile Island – some way inland of Philadelphia – went into meltdown, spewing radiation into the environment. Forty-three years on, no injury or death has been attributed to the incident, but the story is remembered as the final nail in the coffin of nuclear energy.

Time has helped Britain, France, and the US to move on from Cold War hysteria and memories of TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Civilian and military applications of nuclear technology have been decoupled, and reassurances of nuclear power’s safety have stuck. But others remain trapped in 20th-century commitments to a world that no longer exists.

For some, this is sustainable. Spain spent the 2000s diversifying its energy mix and can now afford to shrug off nuclear as it prepares to decommission its plants. There is little to be gained from testing an ambivalent population. The country will continue to coordinate an effort to invest in alternatives to Algerian gas, giving it the political freedom to make new friends.

Others face more pressing geopolitical threats. Germany has invested well in renewables but still relies on burning fossils fuels in the colder, darker months. This weakens the case that Russian dependence on German buyers is as compelling as German dependence on Russian energy. Russian leverage has given it the power to steadily extend its influence west towards a firmer natural border. When Germany relies on Russia, Europe relies on Russia.

For now, Europe remains bound. Germany is still trapped in a political and legal prison of its own design: in 1998, a coalition of the SPD and the Greens forced the early decommissioning of nuclear power plants and banned in law new ones from being built. The so-called ‘nuclear consensus’, hoping to appease an anti-nuclear movement growing in Germany since the 1970s, drastically limited the potential of the country’s energy mix. Under pressure to import energy from elsewhere, Germany cannot afford to wait for renewable technologies to improve – unlike Spain – and will struggle to bridge the gap without domestic production of nuclear.

Until recently, it has been enough to assume all actors can be kept in equilibrium by the steady flow of money from Europe to Asia. But Russia cannot ignore its geography, and Europe cannot ignore its addiction to fossil fuels. Europe has imagined it has the luxury to be divided on energy, allowing local politics to shape policy, regardless of the consequences to neighbours. Diversifying the energy mix is, or isn’t, a priority, depending on who you ask.

As a result, the west has failed to spell out a short, medium, and long-term solution to replacing dependence on Russian imports. Nuclear will play an important role, though it will be years before the benefits can be felt. More immediately, Europe should focus on unifying around energy efficiency. Historically, inconsistent policies have allowed developed nations to profit from unsustainable traditions while latecomers have struggled for autonomy. Household energy efficiency grew 29% across Europe in the first 20 years of the millennium, but its residential sector still accounts for 40% of its gas demand, held back by poor (and inconsistent) insulation, lighting, and draught prevention. Inevitably, this hurts the poor the most, shackling low-income countries to dependence on foreign imports.

In the medium term, Britons are right to push for wider use of renewables. The Prime Minister’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia should remind him that there are no assurances in oil and that there is work that can be done at home. New research from Appinio shows 82% of Brits – suddenly very aware of the fragile costs of energy – think their country is too dependent on others to meet its energy needs, and 53% would prioritise renewables.

The sense that the current setup is unsustainable seems to be rising: last year, BEIS found only 71% had concerns about foreign energy dependence.

Redrawing The Iron Curtain

The war in Ukraine will prompt Europe to coalesce, to find a common enemy in reliance on autocrats and a common motivation to reform. But these things take time. The challenge will be for Western nations to remain focused even after the immediate Russian threat dissipates or evolves in the next two or three months.

Change is not impossible. Germans today do not oppose nuclear power as they did in the 1970s but significant political pressure will be needed for the coalition to rethink the balance of its energy mix. Britain has made some progress towards finding a reliable domestic source of energy, with the Secretary of State for BEIS flag-bearing the nuclear cause. The new Regulated Asset Based model of financing for new power stations will offer investors better incentives to fund lucrative long-term projects. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a team sport, not always for the immediate benefit of the individual.

Reducing reliance on any one source of energy will require – by definition – diversification of the European energy mix. Liquified Natural Gas from the States (and, indeed, Saudi imports) may provide a methadone substitute to soften the weaning away from Russia, but the bloc must seriously consider a congruent strategy for energy efficiency, renewables, and nuclear power if it values a sustainable and competitive energy solution. 

Words by James Reynolds

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