Is Europe’s energy crisis calling into question its strategic autonomy?

The Dutch city of Groningen is placid and prosperous, an idealized part of European success story. Except when it is shaken by earthquakes.

These earthquakes – there was a powerful case that measured a magnitude of 3.4 on the Richter scale last year – forced the government to prematurely shut down the vast natural gas field beneath the city. . As an energy crisis hits Europe this autumn, Groningen is now the pivot on which the EU and its electricity industry face the growing challenge.

Closures are looming in Europe this winter, as the price of natural gas climbed to the equivalent of $ 250 per barrel of oil. It’s not that there isn’t enough gas in the world. Nor is it that supply relationships with major producers are not well established.

A combination of factors are at play: Asian countries buy their supplies early, there are restrictions from some producer countries and policies in Europe change, as the EU tries to tackle the climate agenda. If there is to be winter discontent, it will serve as an indictment of the EU’s strategic agenda. Meanwhile, as a country in transit out of the bloc’s orbit, the UK has also been embroiled in gas shortages and could still be hit the hardest.

The rush for renewable energies has been very successful in Europe. The costs of switching to wind in particular have come down and efficiency levels in the industry have exceeded all expectations. Headlines across the continent proclaimed record runs of electricity produced without the contribution of coal-fired power plants. The UK, which started the industrial revolution behind its coal mines, went almost 68 days without using the expensive carbon fuel.

However, this September abruptly ruined the party. The doldrums have struck. There was no wind. While the weather is nice, suddenly everyone is wondering how to warm up in winter.

Russia played a big role in this nervousness. It only submitted small bids for transmission capacity on gas pipelines passing through Poland and Ukraine. Moscow is considering a higher price for supplies passing through its new Nord Stream pipeline directly to Western European countries. Thus, the squeeze has prevented countries from replenishing depleted storage facilities.

Localized opposition to production in areas such as Groningen, Europe’s largest onshore field, has deprived policymakers of buffers under their own control. Now Dutch leaders are scrambling to see if the field can expand again.

Other countries are facing similar problems. The UK has abandoned US-style fracking in recent years. For now, there is no indication that the decision will be overturned, even though Boris Johnson’s government appeared to want to do so when it came to power in 2019.

The post-pandemic situation is not helping. Much of the UK’s gas production is currently offline, as maintenance delayed last year is only being carried out now. Norway, meanwhile, has increased its production but also has to worry about replenishing its stocks, which were depleted by the very difficult weather conditions of last year.

Everywhere you look there is a dilemma to be faced.

Europe has talked a lot about strategic autonomy for most of this century. Its energy sector is one example. It’s easy for Europe to stand out when it comes to deciding that there should be a single standard for cell phone chargers, or setting its own rules for how data generated by its citizens are operated across the border.

The energy, however, is not in his gift.

Some countries have done very well with renewables, but without technological breakthroughs in batteries or large-scale hydrogen production, there cannot be exclusive reliance on renewables. Nuclear power is emerging as the key alternative to carbon-based fuel systems. The problem is that some countries, like Germany, have abandoned it. Others, like Britain, are pulling more capacity than they are bringing online.

View of a cooling tower of the Golfech nuclear power plant on the banks of the Garonne between Agen and Toulouse, France, July 19, 2019. REUTERS / Regis Duvignau

Without technological breakthroughs in batteries or large-scale hydrogen production, there can be no exclusive dependence on renewable energies.

Not being bold is no longer a luxury for the UK now that it has left the EU. Yet the government has only flirted with Rolls-Royce’s offer to integrate small nuclear reactor technology into the grid within a decade. Rather than investing in megaprojects, the engine manufacturer believes it has a viable model for regional nuclear power plants that would offer an alternative route.

Britain’s Sizewell C nuclear reactor is at least under construction, but another US-backed project suffered a heavy blow last year when a Japanese company withdrew from a deal to supply the technology. Now Rolls-Royce is pushing to be a part of this project and wants accelerated approval of its smart technology. He maintains that the facility can be commissioned around 2030. Politicians in the government’s backbench are seeing a whiff of unpopularity in the energy crisis and some have started to defend the Rolls-Royce approach.

Renewable energies have been a big boon for Europe. It really is a great advantage to have done so much so quickly. But the reliability of supply is the ultimate challenge. If the Europeans succeed in solving this problem, the objective of regional and even global autonomy is within their reach.

The events of this hauntingly calm September raised serious questions for Europeans. Ten years later, the solutions must be in place.

Posted: Sep 25, 2021, 2:00 p.m.

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About Keith Tatum

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