There used to be very little attention paid to energy security in Europe, and it was hardly thought of as a critical problem. Instead, the conversation was dominated by themes such as climate change, or the climate crisis. To this you could add decarbonisation, net-zero, renewables, green new deal, energy transition or ‘Energiewende’ as it is known in Germany, ‘build back better’ and other similar topics. This was where politicians, and international organisations had their focus, that is until Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
The conflict between the energy demands of a modern society and environmentalism surfaced in Europe in the 1970s, with major protests against nuclear power station construction in Germany. Then in March 1979 there was the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, which saw a partial meltdown in the TMI-2 reactor. This accident acted as a catalyst to the anti-nuclear power movement globally and contributed to a slowdown in nuclear power station construction. Post-Three Mile Island, the stage was set for environmentalism to enter the political sphere and in January 1980, the Green Party was formed in Germany.
Environmentalism and Energy in Germany
In many respects, the Green Party was an evolution from the youth protest movements of the 1960s in Germany, these then developed into themes such as environmental concerns, an anti-nuclear energy policy and a peace movement. The anti-nuclear/peace movement themes were strengthened in the early 1980s as NATO decided to deploy new nuclear-capable systems, the Pershing II Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) and the BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM), in Europe in response to an escalation in Soviet nuclear capability via the deployment of the SS-20 (RSD-10 Pioneer) Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) from the mid-1970s onwards. Massive demonstrations were held to protest Pershing II and GLCM deployment.
Growing anti-nuclear, peace movement and environmental sentiment in Germany allowed the Greens to make the political breakthrough and win representation at the Länder or state level in Germany (prior to 1990, Germany was divided into ten Länder). Then in 1983 national elections the Greens won 27 seats in the Bundestag (the German parliament), with 5.7% of the vote. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 with a reactor meltdown followed by an explosion, would see a further rise in European anti-nuclear activism and green politics.
Following the 1998 federal election, the Greens would remain in government as part of a coalition until 2005. The broader Green movement was not particularly impressed by the Greens in government, despite the fact that one of their major objectives would be reached through a law passed in 2000, under which Germany’s 19 nuclear power plants were due to be shut down by 2020.
Following a dip in the Green vote at the 2005 federal election, events elsewhere would conspire to reinvigorate Green politics. In March 2011 the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was damaged in a tsunami following an earthquake, resulting in a large radiation leak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) classified the incident as Level Seven on their International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the same as Chernobyl. After Fukushima, the German government of Angela Merkel, which in 2010 had decided to extend the service life of German nuclear power stations, changed tack and decided to totally phase out nuclear power.
It was the Merkel government that had committed Germany to the ‘Energiewende’, energy transition programme, with legislation passed in December 2010. Their target was low carbon, a focus on renewables, energy efficiency and energy demand management to lead to energy transition. What is noteworthy here is that it was a centrist/centre-right government under Angela Merkel that put Germany on the path to its environmentally sound low-carbon energy policy. This demonstrated how far the message of environmentalism and green politics had seeped into the German weltanschauung, across many traditional political divides.
Environmentalism has continued to be a key priority in German politics, with the first post-Merkel election in September 2021 seeing the Greens finish as the third largest party, with 14.8% of the votes, winning 118 seats in the Bundestag and joining a government coalition with the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz that took power in December 2021 has five Green Party ministers.
Transition in Name Only?
Germany had put itself in the lead in terms of energy transition in Europe and clearly there was significant popular support for this policy, as indicated by the electoral performance of the Greens and the other major political parties becoming more focused on environmental issues.
In reality, this energy transition did not quite evolve as planned. The idea that the transition would aid energy becoming more affordable has proven inaccurate, as energy has remained expensive. In terms of fossil fuels, Germany is the largest consumer of oil, gas and coal in Europe. According to the BP ‘Statistical Review of World Energy 2022,’ Germany consumed 2,199 thousand barrels per day (TBPD) of oil, in comparison France consumed 1,499 TBPD and the UK 1,271 TBPD. In terms of gas Germany consumed 90.5 billion cubic metres, France consumed 43 billion cubic metres and the UK 76.9 billion cubic metres.
Germany can point to the fact that it has successfully invested in renewables. In 2021 Germany generated 584.5 Terrawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, 217.6 TWh came from renewables, to which one could add 19.1 TWh from hydroelectric. However, 162.6 TWh came from coal, 89 TWh from natural gas and 69 TWh from nuclear. As we can see, ten years into the energy transition, fossil fuels and nuclear provide almost 55% of the electricity generated in Germany. Added to this, the plan (which has been halted for the moment) was to decommission the last two nuclear power plants, that provide nearly 12% of the electricity generated in Germany. Electricity generation from coal was also to be scaled back significantly in 2022, but that plan was set aside as Germany faced up to the Europe-wide energy crisis.
Given time, the idea was that renewables would take an ever larger share of electricity generation in Germany. Obviously this would require further investment in renewables and a significant breakthrough in electricity storage to provide electricity when there was no sun or wind, for example. In parallel, there would have to be major investment in the national grid to increase efficiency and reduce transmission loss. All of this required spending, but the German government was content to pay the price.
While waiting for the revolution in renewables, the temporary solution was to use fossil fuels, while decommissioning nuclear power plants. Neither of these moves particularly helped the low carbon energy cause. Indeed, scrapping nuclear power plants led to a return to coal, which was hardly a sound environmental move. It also led Germany to rely upon natural gas to balance the various elements of its electricity production and to stabilise its grid, and the primary source of this was Russia.
It would appear that from Germany’s perspective, sourcing its gas from Russia was a purely commercial transaction. Bearing in mind the history of German-Russian relations, warm diplomatic and commercial relations between Berlin and Moscow were a very positive development and one to be encouraged. On the other hand, this was the same Russia that would seize the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then go on to carve out substantial areas of the Donbas. Not content with that, Russia would take a threatening posture against the Baltic States and Poland amongst others. Clearly Russia was emerging as a disruptive force in the European security architecture, as a strategic competitor to both NATO and the EU. On this basis, relying on Russian gas to provide some 15% of the fuel for German electricity generation was problematic, and compounding this was the volume of Russian oil in Germany’s energy mix as well.
As far as energy was concerned, the emphasis was on a low or no carbon future and insufficient attention was given to energy security. It is easy to criticise Germany for dependence on Russian gas, but many other European countries were in a similar position.
While the winter of 2022/2023 has been mercifully mild thus far, and Europe broadly has plenty of hydrocarbon reserves left, this was incredibly lucky, and a harsh winter could have easily caused serious problems. During harsher winters, demand for electricity rises for heating and other applications, and the amount of power generated by wind and solar renewables declines, increasing the reliance on non-renewables.
In Search of Solutions
Solutions to Europe’s current energy problems do exist to meet both near term and future needs. Around the end of 2022, Germany was receiving more gas deliveries from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Nigeria has been supplying Poland. Given enough time, Europe could establish new and more secure sources of gas supply. These sources could be both external and within Europe, the key is to see that fossil fuels still have a role to play for the time being, and are a critical part of any strategic energy reserve needed to reach energy security. Candidates here include the gas fields shared by Israel and Cyprus, which could meet gas demands in Southern Europe and beyond, though this will require a pipeline to connect to the existing gas supply networks in Southern Europe.
More broadly Europe has to be realistic about its energy mix, it all very well to come up with targets for zero carbon by 2050, especially since most of today’s decision makers will not be in power in 2050. A realistic energy mix for the next 20 years and most likely beyond will likely include a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables. Given time and technology development, it could be that renewables will become the dominant factor in the energy mix, but that is unlikely in the short term.
Nuclear energy also remains a viable stopgap, and most notably France is basing its energy security on nuclear power plants. Existing facilities will be restored to full functionality where necessary and new generation nuclear systems will enter service. In Britain one of the last acts of the Boris Johnson government was to give the go ahead for the new Sizewell C nuclear power plant. Nuclear energy is not cheap, but it does offer Europe energy security while being less polluting than fossil fuels. Recent breakthroughs in nuclear fusion may offer a third alternative over the longer term, with various such efforts already underway within Europe, but while the technology remains immature it probably cannot be relied upon for planning purposes over the medium-term.
Finally, Europe needs to be honest about renewables and what they can and cannot do in terms of energy security. The key enabler to growth in renewables will be energy storage, but there are some challenges here too. The environmental damage caused by lithium mining is already well known, additionally there are performance limitations in lithium-based battery technology. Possible alternatives exist though, including gravity-based energy storage (such as ‘water batteries’), thermal energy storage (such as ‘sand batteries’), or more sophisticated types such as vanadium reflux flow batteries (also known as vanadium redox flow batteries). Potentially these could be the answer for energy storage from renewables, though a potential problem arises insofar as the main source of rare earth elements required to build batteries and various other electrical equipment is China. A similar story arises with vanadium, where the largest source is China, and the second-largest is Russia.
Europe can achieve energy security, of that there is no doubt. Yet to do this it needs to be realistic in constructing its energy mix and carefully balancing fossil fuel, nuclear and renewables. There is political pressure to make the transition to renewables immediately, however this will not be realistically possible without implementing large reductions in energy demand and risks economic decline. The balanced approach is to develop effective low-environmental impact energy storage solutions, as well as new and potentially affordable fuel sources such as hydrogen. Although the past winter was relatively mild, future winters may be less kind, with Europe paying the price for not taking energy security seriously.