Will war make Europe's switch to clean energy even harder?

Wind turbine blades built by Siemens Gamesa in Denmark ready for shipping to Taiwan in Aalborg, Denmark, on Feb 10, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

AALBORG, DENMARK (NYTIMES) - At the Siemens Gamesa factory in Aalborg, Denmark, where the next generation of offshore wind turbines is being built, workers are on their hands and knees inside a shallow, canoe-shaped pod that stretches the length of a football field. It is a mold used to produce one half of a single propeller blade. Guided by laser markings, the crew is lining the sides with panels of balsa wood.

The gargantuan blades offer a glimpse of the energy future that Europe is racing toward with sudden urgency.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia - the European Union's largest supplier of natural gas and oil - has spurred governments to accelerate plans to reduce their dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels.

Armed conflict has prompted policymaking pledges that the more distant threat of an uninhabitable planet has not.

Smoothly managing Europe's energy switch was always going to be difficult. Now, as economies stagger back from the second year of the pandemic, Russia's attack on Ukraine grinds on and energy prices soar, the painful trade-offs have crystallised like never before.

Moving investments away from oil, gas and coal to sustainable sources like wind and solar, limiting and taxing carbon emissions, and building a new energy infrastructure to transmit electricity are crucial to weaning Europe off fossil fuels. But they are all likely to raise costs during the transition, an extremely difficult pill for the public and politicians to swallow.

The crisis that has inspired Europe to more quickly reach toward clean energy sources like wind and solar also risks pitching it backward by unwinding efforts to shut coal mines and stop drilling new oil and gas wells to replace Russian fuel and bring prices down.

In Germany, Europe's largest economy, leaders are planning to have several coal-fired power plants that were recently taken off the grid placed in reserve, so that they could be quickly fired up if needed. After years of dithering about investing so much in the natural gas infrastructure, Germany is also accelerating plans to build its own terminals for receiving liquefied natural gas, another fossil fuel.

"Security of our energy supply stands above everything else at the moment," said Robert Habeck, the country's economy minister and a Green party leader in the coalition government.

Local officials are taking similar steps. Last week, the Munich government decided to extend the life of one of the city's coal-fired power plants, scrapping plans to convert it to burn natural gas in spring 2023.

And that is in a country that has helped spearhead Europe's efforts to shift to renewable energy.

The Belchatow coal-fired power plant, run by PGE and the largest of its kind in Europe, in Belchatow, Poland, on Feb 15, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Resistance in Poland

In Poland, which gets 70 per cent of its energy from coal and has been at loggerheads with the European Union over the climate agenda, the sudden energy shortage is being used by critics as evidence that the push to shut mines was a mistake.

Dominik Kolorz, head of the Silesian region of Solidarity Trade Union, said through a translator that "the so-called EU climate policy" was leading to a "huge economic crisis" and "total energy dependence on the Russian Federation".

In many ways, Europe has been a leading laboratory for the decades-long transition. It started establishing taxes on carbon emissions more than 20 years ago. The European Union pioneered an emissions trading system, which capped the amount of greenhouse gases companies produced and created a marketplace where licenses for those emissions could be bought and sold.

Polluting industries like steel were gradually pushed to clean up. Last year, members proposed a carbon tax on imports from carbon-producing sectors like steel and cement.

And it has led the way in generating wind power, especially from ocean-based turbines. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, for example, has been instrumental in planting rows of colossal whirligigs at sea that can generate enough green energy to light up cities.

Europe, too, is on the verge of investing billions in hydrogen, potentially the multipurpose clean fuel of the future, which might be generated by wind turbines.

Such exhilarating innovation, though, sits next to despair-inducing obstacles.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, a tight natural gas market, exacerbated by Russia's restraining of supplies, had pushed gas and electricity prices to record levels, leading to shutdowns of fertiliser plants and other factories because of high costs. Household energy bills are set to rise by about 50 per cent in Britain and drivers across Europe faced shock at the pump.

European countries, most notably Germany, had mapped out strategies that relied on increasing dependence on Russian gas and oil in the medium term. That is no longer an option.

After the invasion, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, halted approval of Nord Stream 2, an US$11 billion (S$14.9 billion) gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that directly links Russia to northeastern Germany.

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said when she announced a plan on March 8 to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels: "We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us."

The proposal calls for member nations to reduce Russian natural gas imports by two-thirds by next winter and to end them altogether by 2027 - a very tall order.

This week, European Union leaders are again meeting to discuss the next phase of proposals, but deep divisions remain over how to manage the current price increases amid anxieties that Europe could face a double whammy of inflation and recession.

Morten Pilgaard Rasmussen of Siemens Gamesa in Brande, Denmark, on Feb 11, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

UN warning

On Monday (March 21), United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that intense focus on quickly replacing Russian oil could mean that major economies "neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use".

There are other technological, financial, regulatory and political hurdles. The ability to cheaply generate, transport and store a clean replacement fuel like hydrogen to power trucks, cars and airplanes remains years away.

And there is the need to find a better business model.

Siemens Gamesa is the world's leading maker of offshore wind turbines, a key vehicle for achieving climate targets. The company is also working on a giant turbine that would be dedicated solely to producing green hydrogen.

Yet, at the company's offshore design centre in Brande, a two-hour drive from Aalborg, the conversations focus on worries as much as bright prospects. The company just replaced its CEO because of poor financial performance.

Industry executives say that despite the huge climate ambitions of many countries, Siemens Gamesa and its competitors are struggling to make a profit and keep the orders coming in fast enough to finance their factories. It doesn't help that building plants is often a condition for breaking into new markets like the United States, where Siemens Gamesa agreed to erect a facility in Virginia.

Morten Pilgaard Rasmussen, chief technology officer of the offshore wind unit at Siemens Gamesa, said that companies like his "are now forced to do investments based on the prosperous future that we are all waiting for".

Rasmussen and other executives added that identifying suitable areas for wind turbines and obtaining permits required for construction take "far too long".

Challenges are based on worries that the vast arrays of turbines will interfere with fishing, obstruct naval exercises and blight views from summer houses.

To Kadri Simson, Europe's commissioner for energy, renewable energy projects should be treated as an "overriding public interest" and Europe should consider changing laws to facilitate them.

"We cannot talk about a renewables revolution if getting a permit for a wind farm takes seven years," Simson said.

Still, environmental regulations and other rules relating to large infrastructure installations are usually the province of countries rather than EU officials in Brussels.

And steadfast opposition from communities and industries invested in fossil fuels make it hard for political leaders to fast-track energy transition policies.

In Upper Silesia, Poland's coal basin, bright yellow buses display signs that boast they run on 100 per cent electric, courtesy of a grant from the European Union. But along the road, large billboards mounted before the invasion of Ukraine by state-owned utilities - erroneously - blame Brussels for 60 per cent of the rise in energy prices.

Down in the Wujek coal mine, veterans worry if their jobs will last long enough for them to log the 25 years needed to retire with a lifelong pension. Closing mines not only threatens to devastate the economy, several miners said, but also a way of life built on generations of coal-mining.

"Pushing through the climate policy forcefully may lead to a drastic decrease in the standard of living here," said Kolorz at Solidarity's headquarters in Katowice. "And when people do not have something to put on the plate, they can turn to extreme populism."

Difficult decisions

Climate pressures are pushing at least some governments to consider steps they might not have before.

German officials have determined that it is too costly to keep the country's last three remaining nuclear power generators online past the end of the year. But the quest for energy with lower emissions is leading to a revival of nuclear energy elsewhere.

Britain and France say they plan to invest in smaller nuclear reactors that can be produced in larger numbers to bring down costs.

Britain might even build a series of small nuclear fusion reactors, a promising but still unproven technology.

Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said every route to clean energy must be tried if there is to be any hope of reaching net zero emissions in three decades, the deadline for avoiding catastrophic climate change. "We've got to do everything we possibly can," he said.

In the short term, much of what the European Union is proposing involves switching the source of fossil fuels, and, in particular, natural gas, from Russia to other suppliers like the United States, Qatar and Azerbaijan, and filling up storage facilities as a buffer.

The risk is that Europe's actions will further raise prices, which are already about five times higher than a year ago, in a market where supplies are short in part because companies are wary of investing in a fuel that the world ultimately wants to phase out.

Over the longer term, Europe and Britain seem likely to accelerate their world-leading rollout in renewable energy and other efforts to cut emissions despite the enormous costs and intense disruptions.

"The EU will almost certainly throw hundreds of billions of euros at this," said Henning Gloystein, a director for energy and climate at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm. "Once the trains have left the station, they can't be reversed."

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