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On the impending invasion of Ukraine, and energy independence

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Bob Meinetz's picture
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I am a passionate advocate for the environment and nuclear energy. With the threat of climate change, I’ve embarked on a mission to help overcome the fears of nuclear energy. I’ve been active in...

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  • Dec 10, 2021
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A November article in Bloomberg, How Europe Has Become So Dependent on Putin for Gas, has taken on added relevance in recent days. In advance of Russia's impending invasion of the Ukraine, President Biden has announced no military intervention by the U.S. would be forthcoming. 

"Europe’s relations with Russia are close to their lowest point in decades. Yet now President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to open the spigot on Russia’s copious natural gas -- or not -- may be what determines how cold many Europeans get this winter. That’s despite the European Union’s vow a decade ago to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, to avoid this kind of vulnerability. It’s been a contentious issue within the economic bloc and has caused rifts with the United States. Now Putin is dangling the possibility of a surge in gas exports, but possibly with strings attached.  

1. How Vulnerable is Europe?

A supply crunch in October provided a vivid insight into Europe’s reliance on gas flows from Russia. Gas storage tanks in the EU were at their lowest seasonal level in more than a decade, after longer-than-usual maintenance at Norwegian fields and Russia rebuilding its own inventories. Benchmark gas prices traded as high as 162 euros ($188) per megawatt-hour on Oct. 6, compared with about 20 euros at the start of the year. It was against this background that Nord Stream 2, a new Russian pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany, was completed in September. 

2. What's Russia's agenda?

In exchange for increasing gas supplies, Russia wants Germany and the EU to give the approval it needs to begin using the pipeline, according to people close to Gazprom and the Kremlin. It might not be approved until May if regulators use all the time they’re allowed. Putin stepped in to ease pressure on the market in late October by ordering state-run gas giant Gazprom PJSC to start refilling its European gas-storage facilities, sending prices lower. But after Putin’s intervention, Gazprom only booked a fraction of extra capacity in existing pipelines, leaving energy markets on edge."

Any student of history will quickly recognize what can be expected in coming months and years:

  • After occupation of Ukraine is complete, Putin's advance will extend westward into former members of the Soviet bloc.
  • Germany's Energiewende has left it wholly reliant on Russian gas, to the detriment of the environment and its own sovereignty. Whether or not occupation or annexation of Germany is in the cards is irrelevant. Without radical action in 2022, democracy in that country will likely follow the same downward spiral it has in the U.S., with ominous implications for remaining states of the EU.
  • The U.S., meanwhile, follows Germany's course of action blindly. Its plan to build 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity in international waters renders U.S. coastal electricity grids exceedingly vulnerable to submarine attack. Already dependent on sun and the wind, we will be increasingly energy-dependent on the peaceful intentions of our foreign adversaries.

Energy is not only power that lights our way in the night, that powers our cellphones, our access to commerce and information - it's political power. It's freedom. It puts control of our lives in our own hands, and it's anything but guaranteed. In coming months and years we will be forced to defend energy independence like never before,  a challenge only made more formidable by misplaced confidence in renewable energy.

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Andrew Blakers's picture
Andrew Blakers on Dec 10, 2021

Building mutual dependence on neighbours is a very good way to reduce the chance of warfare. "If you cut off supply of solar energy when my sun sets this evening, then I will cut off supply of wind energy to you in your evening".

At present, Russian gas goes west in one pipeline and Euros go east in another. Russia and the EU need each other and that strongly constrains both.

In the future, North Sea wind electricity will go east and south and solar will go west and north. Solar and wind confer robustness, and have minimal utility for warfare or terrorists or criminals.

A wonderful feature of solar and wind (in addition to lowest cost and environmental impact) is that millions and billions of indpendent collectors are utilised in a very widely distributed network (rather than a few hubs & spokes). Most houses and businesses will have their own solar collectors plus storage for a week in the form of home batteries, EV batteries, hot water tanks and thermal storage in the building fabric.

The notion of submarines destroying 10,000 * 10MW offshore wind turbines without the US Navy noticing is interesting ...

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 10, 2021

"Building mutual dependence on neighbours is a very good way to reduce the chance of warfare."

Russia provides 40% of natural gas for the entire EU, and thus is hardly "dependent" on revenue from Germany alone.

"If you cut off supply of solar energy when my sun sets this evening, then I will cut off supply of wind energy to you in your evening".

"If both you and I rely on intermittent electricity over which we have no control, we're both in bad shape." Aren't we?

"Solar and wind confer robustness, and have minimal utility for warfare or terrorists or criminals etc...."

These hopeful fantasies entertained by renewables advocates, once tolerated, are now best ignored.

"The notion of submarines destroying 10,000 * 10MW offshore wind turbines without the US Navy noticing is interesting ..."

The notion the US Navy would order a fleet of submarines to stand guard over feeble, intermittent sources of offshore energy is as interesting as other hopeful renewable fantasies - i.e., not very.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 12, 2021

"Russia and the EU need each other and that strongly constrains both."

That sort of interdependence does work among democracies.  But totalitarian regime don't have to play by those rules.  Elected leaders whose policies harm their economies will get the boot.  But Putin can stay in power as long as he wants; if his policies lead to devastating economic sanctions, he'll simply crack down on dissenters.  The people of North Korean are quite impoverished compared to their neighbors to the south, and yet their leader has never lost an election.  When groups like the United Nations debate the problem of rogue nations, there are many bad government who step up to defend the rights of other governments to be bad. 

When a free nation becomes dependent on an adversary for a critical item, and energy is critical, that is a political disaster in the making.

Renewables work great as long a fossil gas is plentiful.  Europe must either find a secure gas supply (i.e. the US LNG, or domestic frac'ing) or abandon renewables in favor of a secure supply like dirty domestic coal or clean, safe, inexhaustible nuclear.

---

Regarding enemy attacks on off-shore infrastructure:  the waters around the US are full of boats from all over the world.  The US Navy can't go around shooting at anyone they think looks suspicious.  Say a group of terrorists in fishing boats use remotely operated oil-pipeline-maintenance robots to cut a few of off-shore transmission lines, which could crash a renewables-rich grid on the Eastern seaboard ... on a cloudy day.  Sure the Coast Guard will track them down and capture the perps. But they will have dumped all the gear overboard and there will be no satellite images of the crime (the military evidence like sonar data can't be released to the public because it would reveals military secrets about our coastal defense capabilities and weaknesses).  They'll insist they were out whale watching, and it will be our word against theirs.  The president could choose to retaliate against the nation we believe is responsible, but after the 911-Afganistan fiasco, that's not a great option. 

Critical infrastructure must be guarded with "boots on the ground"; the threat of retaliation is not enough.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 13, 2021

"Say a group of terrorists in fishing boats use remotely operated oil-pipeline-maintenance robots to cut a few of off-shore transmission lines, which could crash a renewables-rich grid on the Eastern seaboard..."

Exactly, Nathan. Destroying 10,000 * 10MW offshore wind turbines? Unnecessary. Cutting a few of the 20-mile-long cables bringing electricity ashore, from international waters, is all it would take.

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