We should be grateful to the Russians and Ukranians for the warning that central Asian gas supplies are insecure. We must heed the warning and start moving more urgently to renewable sources of energy, as this is the only way for the EU to have energy independence. The Kiev – Moscow row about gas bills has been going on for years and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
As passive consumers of Central Asian gas all we can do is understand the situation, learn from this crisis and start investing in alternative sources of energy. We must not take for granted a regular supply of gas. Interruptions will become increasingly common, if only because the investments are not being made in new production and transport infrastructure. The recent interruption in gas supplies shows how centralised and weak the supply chain is; if there is a row with Ukraine, the whole of SE Europe is affected. If there is a drop in pressure in the eastern end of the pipeline it will soon impact on the west.
Observing the gas pipeline “geopolitics” is a fascinating occupation for the armchair strategist: Russia says security of supply will come from its new North and South Stream gas pipelines, while the Economist laments that the alternative Nabucco pipeline, which would have linked the EU direct to the Caspian basin, bypassing Russia, never got the political backing that could have resulted in its construction.
I say that these pipelines are irrelevant to energy security in the EU. Even with all these pipelines operational we would still be reliant on distant and unaccountable regimes for our gas supply. Political rows, unpaid bills or regional conflicts will continue to ensure that supply remains unreliable. Another factor is that most of the gas that Russia sells to the EU comes from the former Soviet republics. Russia only produces enough gas to supply itself, and the EU supply is dependent on Russia’s good relations with the former Soviet states.
There is an alternative: energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy. Energy efficiency should be understood as meaning ways of cutting energy consumption in buildings. The German PassivHaus technology has proven that energy efficient buildings can maintain a 20 degrees temperature all year round — without the need for any traditional source of heat at all. If all buildings used PassivHaus technologies (most of which are low tech) our need for gas imports would crash and the financial savings to be made could be measured in the trillions.
One of the most sustainable concepts of renewable energy is that it should be locally produced. In other words every community should look at what mix of renewables it should invest in to get a regular supply of heat, electricity and gas. For example, biogas can be made from sewage and organic waste that exists in huge quantities in every city, and is currently thrown away in most places. Sewage and garbage could become a part of the solution. Public heating systems are another way of delivering heat in a highly efficient way, and we should look at how Sweden does this.
These solutions are as relevant to Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet republics as they are to EU member states. These countries are increasingly vulnerable by their over dependence on gas, and they need to invest in local and renewable sources of energy. They should become part of the diversification of energy supplies solution, rather than being seen as part of the problem.
The case for renewables has been proven in the EU and most government’s are in favour. But it is very much a case of something “should” be done, not something that urgently “must” be done. Central European EU member states are trying to block the EU’s 20/20/20 commitments as they want to protect their old and dirty energy sector. But this is a false economy; it is in their own economic interest to diversify supplies and take the renewable road to sustainability.
This article was also published in the EU Observer.