By Irina Slav
The feeling of being right about something should be a pleasant one. Unless you’re right about something rather unpleasant. I tend to have the latter kind of experiences and the latest instance was this week, when media reported that the EU was planning to substantially facilitate the construction of more wind and solar farms, to the point of removing the requirement for an environmental impact assessment for projects.
This unleashed a flood of images that to some might be illustrations of our species’ progress but to me are images of environmental devastation. In case anyone thinks I’m being melodramatic, here’s a fact: you can’t build solar installations just anywhere. Land needs to be cleared and flattened for them, including forests, should they happen to be in the way. Same for wind mills but on a much, I believe, smaller scale.
Of course, the EU has tied its pants with the stipulation that only projects proposed for designated “go-to” areas will be spared the trouble of environmental impact assessments. It’s a completely worthless stipulation, however, since governments would rush to designate go-to area after go-to area whether out of a genuine if misplaced belief that renewables will save the world or pure, primal greed.
Here’s an FT quote I instantly fell in love with: ““Lengthy and complex administrative procedures are a key barrier for investments in renewables and their related infrastructure,” according to the draft. The plans could “result in the occasional killing or disturbance of birds and other protected species”, it added.”
It might also result in the disturbance of agricultural land and sensitive ecosystems because all ecosystems are sensitive and if you really get going building gigawatts of solar power, you will disturb them because, quite simply, everywhere is an ecosystem. And this plan comes from the same EU that has been fining Bulgaria (with reason, I’m sure and I’m not being sarcastic for a change) for violating environmental protection regulations.
So, the EU has since last September been suffering the consequences of a too fast buildout in renewable capacity, rooted in the arrogant assumption that it only takes a few million solar panels and wind turbines to save the planet from the effects of centuries of human activity.
Now, the bloc plans to accelerate this buildout even more because, of course, it never acknowledged the role that too-fast buildout had on its energy troubles. On the contrary, the overwhelming sentiment appears to be that European countries are not building wind and solar capacity fast enough.
The EU will also accelerate the acceleration even further because now Brussels has set its sights on completely quitting all sorts of fossil fuel imports from Russia by 2027. This would cost the bloc the modest sum of 195 billion euro, or 32.5 billion euro per year until 2027, on top of all other investments in renewable energy. The goal: to source 45% of its energy from renewable installations by 2030. Given the track record of wind and solar, this is, of course, totally feasible.
Meanwhile, European economies are panting under growing inflation weight, dumped on them by the same people who are now urging the accelerated ramp-up of wind and solar. At a time when all commodity prices are soaring. At a time of various material and equipment shortages.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results has been said to be the definition of insanity and the EU is acting like an excellent example of this definition. It refuses to acknowledge that the results of its actions in energy so far have been less than positive, so to speak. Except on the level of emissions. Those are falling, so that’s a win for the EU narrative (and for our lungs, if we’re talking about fine particulate matter). On the security and affordability front, however, things couldn’t be different-er.
In the UK, the FT reported this week, some households are being forced to take out loans in order to be able to pay their electricity bills. Meanwhile, the government is raising its 2030 renewable capacity target to 50 GW for offshore wind alone while Chancellor Sunak is berating the oil industry for not investing enough at home. As one reader would say, this reads like a soap opera script, and a bad one, at that.
The UK is not the EU but the energy policies of the two are remarkably identical. In the EU, as in the UK, member states are providing direct financial support to their citizens and businesses to help them cope with higher electricity prices. Those would be the same prices that are high precisely because of these governments’ energy policies. And even with that help, a lot of people are struggling with their bills.
At the same time, these same governments are providing direct financial support to wind and solar developers, while charging their citizens extra for the renewable power in their supply mix (Note: This is an extrapolation, based on the existence of renewable power surcharges in Bulgaria and Germany.). And they are planning to build more of the renewable power capacity that citizens pay more for the privilege of using to heat their homes and cook their food.
In other words, EU governments are paying aid to their citizens for excessive electricity prices while at the same time charging these same citizens more for the renewable electricity they want to produce more of. The aid will end, sooner rather than later. The surcharges are not going anywhere.
The outlook for European energy prices meanwhile remains quite grim. According to economists polled by the Wall Street Journal, energy prices in the EU will remain high and even rise further in the coming months thanks to Western sanctions on Russia that are reducing the availability of Russian oil for Europe.
The sanctions have also started reducing the availability of gas for Europe, first because of Poland’s and Bulgaria’s refusal to pay in rubles for gas deliveries and as of this week because the Ukraine decided to move the entry point of Russian gas into the country from one place to another, because the first one is controlled by Russian forces.
Gazprom said that was technologically impossible (for capacity reasons), so the Ukraine is turning the tap — which is one of the taps for Europe — off. According to the Ukrainian side, that channel accounts for a third of all Russian gas transited through the Ukraine to Europe. For context, in 2021, the total amount of Russian gas shipped to Europe via its eastern neighbour totalled 41.6 billion cu m.
Soon after this, Moscow sanctioned a host of Gazprom subsidiaries in Europe, cutting off their access to gas, in response to EU sanctions. Gas prices jumped further, as usual, and Brussels’ resolve to shake off the hydrocarbon chains tying it to Russia probably hardened. We might be about to hear about another revision of renewable targets for 2030, with the appropriate price tag, of course.
In all fairness, in this particular context of energy insecurity, the argument for local energy production from whatever you have handy, be it coal, nuclear, or wind and solar, makes a lot of sense. In fact, the “local supply = energy security” argument has always been the strongest pragmatic one in favour of wind and solar.
The problem is in details such as costs, energy density and, as always, reliability. But nobody in Brussels and national capitals doesn’t seem to care about petty details. The political EU is firmly in “Whatever it takes” mode and we’re all footing the bill.