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With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.

By , a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and the author of Iran Is More Than Persia: Ethnic Politics in Iran.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

Facing the worst energy crisis since World War II as the cold-weather heating season starts, Europe continues to dither. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has presented a series of new European Union energy policies, including planned price caps, additional taxes on energy producers, establishment of a new European hydrogen bank, and new support for electric vehicles. European Union member states, meanwhile, are nationalizing utilities, setting electricity prices, and subsidizing consumers. These EU policies do not represent a significant departure from the policies that got the continent into the energy mess in the first place.

The fundamental problem is that Europe is still not facing the sources of its energy security crisis, preferring to blame outside forces for its current predicament. Von der Leyen and other European leaders point at Russia and its war on Ukraine for Europe’s energy woes. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s throttling of the gas taps has undoubtedly made things worse, but this will already be the third winter of Europe’s energy crisis. In the winters 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, Europe already experienced significant spikes in the prices of electricity and natural gas, as well as gas shortages that led to increased use of coal and fuel oil. European policymakers either did not take notice or preferred not to change course.

As long as so many people in Europe and elsewhere believe that the continent’s energy predicament is all about Putin, it helps to be very clear about the policies that led Europe to this crisis. Knowing what caused the problem is the first step to addressing it.

Facing the worst energy crisis since World War II as the cold-weather heating season starts, Europe continues to dither. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has presented a series of new European Union energy policies, including planned price caps, additional taxes on energy producers, establishment of a new European hydrogen bank, and new support for electric vehicles. European Union member states, meanwhile, are nationalizing utilities, setting electricity prices, and subsidizing consumers. These EU policies do not represent a significant departure from the policies that got the continent into the energy mess in the first place.

The fundamental problem is that Europe is still not facing the sources of its energy security crisis, preferring to blame outside forces for its current predicament. Von der Leyen and other European leaders point at Russia and its war on Ukraine for Europe’s energy woes. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s throttling of the gas taps has undoubtedly made things worse, but this will already be the third winter of Europe’s energy crisis. In the winters 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, Europe already experienced significant spikes in the prices of electricity and natural gas, as well as gas shortages that led to increased use of coal and fuel oil. European policymakers either did not take notice or preferred not to change course.

As long as so many people in Europe and elsewhere believe that the continent’s energy predicament is all about Putin, it helps to be very clear about the policies that led Europe to this crisis. Knowing what caused the problem is the first step to addressing it.

Europe’s crisis has been two decades in the making. Aiming to engineer a fast transition from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewable sources, European policymakers forced profound changes in the energy supply. At the same time, they ignored projections for continued demand for oil and natural gas, as well as the need for a reliable baseload fuel source to back up intermittent solar and wind. Many EU member states cut back domestic production of fossil fuels and constrained imports, with the notable exception of gas from Russia. Germany, which has significant gas deposits of its own, banned fracking—as did France and other countries. Over the past decade, European domestic production of natural gas has halved, and today imports make up 83 percent of Europe’s gas consumption.

Under pressure from activists and green parties, Germany and several other countries also chose to phase out carbon-free nuclear power, despite an impeccable safety record. Today, Europe’s proposed caps on gas and electricity prices, along with new levies on energy producers, will further restrict supplies while seeking to protect consumers from the high prices that could induce them to lower the thermostat and turn down the lights.

Phase out nuclear and coal and put the brakes on natural gas—but add less energy generation from renewables than you’ve subtracted—and you get a shortage.

Europe’s policy of blocking gas supplies created shortages that started causing price spikes two winters ago. Believing it will soon be able to do without gas, Europe has also blocked long-term contracts for imports, with the result that Europe is starving for gas even though it is surrounded by some the world’s largest gas reserves—not just in Russia, but also in North Africa, Central Asia, and other regions. The EU could have easily ensured access to reliable gas supplies at affordable prices but is now dependent on the costly spot market instead. Even today, while European officials trot the globe for new gas volumes, they are refusing to sign long-term contracts with the courted producers. Last week was a case in point: Two years into Europe’s energy crisis and seven months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz returned from a trip to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates with an agreement for only a single tanker-load of liquefied natural gas instead of the long term supplies the country desperately needs to keep its citizens warm and factories running.

Europe still has not faced up to the implications of its choice to give up natural gas beginning a decade ago. In the 1990s and 2000s, natural gas was the fastest-growing fuel in Europe and globally. Gas was in demand due to its relatively low emissions and, until recently, competitive price. Switching from coal to natural gas was also the fastest and cheapest way to lower carbon emissions: As a result of the shale gas revolution, the United States rapidly cut its carbon emissions without government intervention. About a decade ago, however, the anti-fossil-fuel camp accelerated its campaigns against natural gas. The result: Europe phased out long-term gas contracts.

In European energy policy, ideology trumps basic math. Phase out nuclear and coal and put the brakes on natural gas—but add less energy generation from renewables than you’ve subtracted—and you get a shortage. What’s more, all attempts to force a faster transition to wind and solar ignore major resource and technology constraints: These energy sources require vast land usage, critical materials and hardware (including from China), and either backup power or nonexistent storage. And, finally, the policymakers’ forced transition ignores projections of continued demand for fossil fuels, including for transportation, industry, heating, and backup power for unpredictable wind and solar.

Despite the math, the data, and a two-year-old energy crisis that has sharply worsened since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, European policymakers continue to follow each other like sheep. As if the energy crisis weren’t happening, the Netherlands announced this week that it will continue to reduce gas production at the massive Groningen field. Germany is sticking to its fracking ban and nuclear phaseout, while Belgium shut down a nuclear power plant last week that provides a significant share of the country’s electricity needs—even as Belgians protest in the streets against skyrocketing energy prices. These countries might instead take their cue from Liz Truss, the new British prime minister: One of her first announcements after taking office was a new energy policy, including a renewal of offshore oil and gas exploration and a reversal of her country’s fracking ban.

Instead of changing course, European policymakers have doubled down with increased investments in solar, wind, and electric vehicles. “The renewables are cheap, they are homegrown, they make us independent,” von der Leyen said in her State of the European Union speech earlier this month. This is a plain contradiction of the facts: Europe has yet to get renewables to work without subsidies and fossil-fuel backup power, they require resource-hungry global supply chains, and they come with their own set of geopolitical challenges and dependencies, just like fossil fuels.

European leaders are aware that their energy market designs are not working. National governments are bailing out or outright nationalizing collapsing utilities. Most are now setting electricity and gas prices for customers. Moreover, Europe’s high cost of carbon has not deterred utilities from firing up mothballed coal plants and switching from gas to fuel oil for electricity and heat. Von der Leyen correctly pointed out in her address that European gas prices are now benchmarked on high-cost LNG rather than low-cost pipeline gas and that the benchmark system has to be reformed. Europe has yet to address the economic implications of the market transferring to higher LNG prices.

Instead of focusing with urgency and laser sharpness on these issues—and reversing mistaken decisions such as various countries’ nuclear phaseouts—European leaders continue to push new projects that are untested and far from commercially viable. Their current pet technology is hydrogen: Von der Leyen recently announced yet more EU funding and the establishment of a European Hydrogen Bank. Hydrogen, however, is not yet commercially viable, there are serious safety concerns about its use and transportation, and there may be significant climate and pollution impacts from its production and inevitable leaks.

Were European policymakers more honest about the homegrown causes of their energy crisis, the proper policies would be clear. First, the EU needs to allow and even encourage its energy buyers to sign long-term gas import contracts, which generally span more than a decade. This would allow producers to invest in the production and transport of dedicated gas volumes for Europe. Nuclear phaseouts should be reversed wherever possible. Next, Europe should be technology neutral in its development of renewable and low-carbon energy sources—instead of directing vast subsidies to specific technologies selected by politicians and bureaucrats.

In addition, Brussels and European governments should give natural gas a new look, including domestic sources, as Britain is now doing. Modern natural gas projects do not release methane like previous generations, and the switch from coal to gas is still the fastest and most efficient way to lower both pollution and carbon emissions. Furthermore, European policies need a long-term plan for baseload fuel to produce electricity in conjunction with solar and wind. Because they do not produce a consistent and predictable volume of power, solar and wind can never replace base load fuels like nuclear and natural gas. These sources go hand in hand.

Europe needs an entirely new approach to energy market design. Above all, it urgently needs to replace ideology with practicality. Otherwise, Europeans will face many more crisis winters—no matter what Putin does.

Brenda Shaffer is a faculty member at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, a senior advisor for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, and the author of Iran Is More Than Persia: Ethnic Politics in Iran, to be published in December.

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