It's never renewables' fault
For those who have wisely chosen to live under a rock but have for some reason decided to crawl out of it for some air — Europe is in a major energy crisis. Utilities are stocking up on coal [sic], asking Russia for coal [sic], Sweden has restarted an oil-fired power plant and Spain is warning the EU that its renewable energy agenda may not survive the test of sky-high electricity bills. A Czech energy executive has asked the EU to classify gas as a green fuel, while gas-fired power plants switch to oil because of gas prices. But none of that has anything to do with the renewables push.
"Part of the answer [to the energy shortage problem] is to put more windmills up in different places, because the wind will be blowing somewhere," said an international politics professor from Manchester University in what has become my favourite quote from the last couple of months. it has even trumped Boris Johnson’s recent statement that all of Britain’s electricity will come from clean energy sources in fifteen years.
For many laypeople, the solution suggested by the politics professor sounds reasonable. Just stick wind mills everywhere you can stick them. Wind is bound to blow in one of these places, isn’t it? For laypeople with a tendency to question reasonably-sounding solutions, especially ones suggested by people outside the relevant field of expertise, sticking wind mills all over a country in the hopes that the wind will blow at least in some of those places is naive, at best. At worst, it is dangerous. Which is exactly what the energy transition narrative has become amid the European gas crunch.
The head of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol was the latest to say that it wasn’t the new kid’s fault. Speaking to MEPs, Birol said "It is inaccurate and unfair to explain these high energy prices as a result of clean energy transition policies. This is wrong."
I’m afraid I couldn’t find the full text of Birol’s speech so I have no way of knowing if he elaborated on why it is inaccurate and unfair to blame energy transition policies for the energy price hikes In Europe. I believe Reuters would have mentioned the explanation had one been provided but this is neither here nor there.
There is reason to argue that it’s not renewables’ fault. In fact, an argument already being made somewhere I’m sure is that the reason Europe is in this position is that it doesn’t have enough wind and solar capacity, and that’s why it’s vulnerable to gas price fluctuations. Sadly, this reason fails the test of actual electricity mixes.
Let’s take Britain since it has been in the eye of the energy price storm. During the last week of September, Britain was generating some 46.5% of its electricity from wind farms. A week later, as I put the finishing touches to this story, the share of wind in the energy mix has fallen to 35.67%.
This is great news given the gas supply constraints. It is not such good news in terms of output fluctuations. What’s more, just weeks ago wind output was much lower than 46.5% of the total. It was closer to zero. And while it’s not wind mills’ fault, with them as with solar farms, one could never be sure how things would look two weeks from now.
Then there’s Spain, a southern, sunny country, which has 14.6 GW in installed solar capacity. In late September, it was utilising 0.52% of this capacity or 75 MW .A week later this has gone down to 0.13%. It is really not the solar farms’ fault that the earth spins the way it does. But while renewable energy installations can hardly be blamed for any of this, those deciding to build more and more of these installations do have a certain responsibility to their citizens to secure their energy needs.
The defence of energy transition plans mounted with admirable immediacy speaks of a sense of urgency to protect the legitimacy and sound logical basis of these plans as this basis begins to rattle under the weight of soaring fossil fuel prices. Bloomberg reported last week several European utilities had turned to the physical market for coal in order to secure winter electricity supply. That’s despite record high emission prices in the EU and the highest coal prices in about 13 years with a metric tonne changing hands for $200 as of late September.
This fact and others like it, such as Sweden’s restart of an oil-fired power plant even though there is no shortage of electricity in the country, interferes with the energy transition narrative that claims the transition will be smooth, painless and for the greater good. Europe’s continued reliance on gas — and imported gas, at that — got exposed during the crunch but so did the shortsightedness of its energy transition plans. It won’t work by just adding more solar and more wind, and closing more coal and nuclear plants.
Apparently, nothing is further down the agenda of Brussels than finding a balance between energy security and emission reduction. On the contrary, the European Parliament has now launched an offensive on Russia, urging the European Commission to start reducing European imports of Russian natural resources, notably crude oil and natural gas but also metals.
In effect, leaving aside the political component of the EP’s call on the EC, what MEPs are calling for is the equivalent of “If the wind’s not blowing we’ll just build a lot more wind farms. It has to blow somewhere.” To continue the thought, if, by some random chance, it turns out the wind does not blow as expected, it will not be the wind turbines’ fault nor the fault of those who made the decision to build them. It would probably be the fault of fossil fuels, somehow, perhaps simply because they exist. Just as fossil fuels are being blamed now for the energy crunch that may threaten blackouts if the winter turns out cold.