In 2009, almost 80% of EU natural gas imports came from just three countries (Russia, Norway and Algeria). Similarly, almost 60% of EU crude oil imports in 2009 were from almost the same three countries (Russia, Norway and Libya), whilst almost 80% of hard coal imports came from just four countries (Russia, Colombia, South Africa and the United States). As long as Europe remains dependent on energy imports from a limited number of suppliers, energy security will be a massive concern. To make matters worse, EU dependence on foreign energy imports has been steadily edging upwards over the years, from less than 40% of gross energy consumption in the 1980s to 45.1% in 1999 and, more recently, to 53.9% in 2009.
Recently, we had the chance to speak to Fiona Hall, a British MEP with the Liberal Democrat party and a member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy in the European Parliament. We asked her about Europe’s energy policy and put some of your comments and questions to her. We started by asking her whether renewable energy might be a possible way of achieving greater energy security.
Last year, we asked you whether you thought Europe could ever be 100% powered by renewables (and most of the responses were fairly optimistic). Indeed, some European governments are already fully convinced this goal can be realistically achieved, and we heard from the Danish Environment Minister that her country intends to be 100% renewable by the year 2050. However, there were also one or two more sceptical voices among our commenters.
We’ve already looked at the question of rare resources being used in the production of (for example) solar panels, but we had another comment come in from Samo, who said he had read that “the entire production of some chemical elements, used in making solar panels, [would be] consumed just by the EU if we decided to go for solar energy.” Whether or not Samo is right about solar panels, doesn’t his comment highlight the fact that the EU will always be dependent on foreign imports, whether they are raw materials or fossil fuels?
I think it is entirely possible to move to 100% renewables, and I welcome the ambition of Denmark to do this. The first thing we need to do is to prioritise energy efficiency. Clearly, if the amount of electricity you consume is a lot bigger than it needs to be, you’re setting yourself a much bigger task. It also becomes cheaper, because you’re not putting in place infrastructure you don’t really need. Energy efficiency, therefore, has to come first.
On the issue of the scarcity of raw materials, what we need is a different attitude to the sourcing of raw materials. Too often, we’ve had a colonialist attitude of going out and digging it out of the other side of the world. Part of the solution is making sure these very precious minerals and metals used in modern electronics and equipment are being recovered, not just thrown into a landfill as scrap.
That’s interesting, because Duchessa made a point about energy security and its impact on EU foreign policy. She argued that “Russia is a big supplier of energy, natural gas and many other raw materials” and that Europe should therefore pursue a much stricter policy of non-interference in Russian domestic politics (which means putting aside long-standing concerns over civil liberties and other issues related to Russia’s democratic process). How would you respond to Duchessa’s point?
The fact that so many of the countries that we, in Europe, source our oil and natural gas from are politically repressive or unstable is not just worrying from a geopolitical point of view, it’s also worrying economically. As the political situation deteriorates, the price of fossil fuels increases. Today, if you look at the eurozone countries that have had the most economic difficulties – the so-called PIIGS - these are also the countries most dependent on fossil fuels, and they’ve seen a massive rise in the bill for those, which is certainly a factor in the economic difficulties they’ve been experiencing. Our economies are under strain, and if we go down the renewables road then that’s an energy supply that is under our control. Quite apart from climate change, then, there are very strong reasons for promoting renewable energy.
Finally, we had a comment from Mike on nuclear energy as a possible alternative: “Nuclear is much safer and healthier than fossil fuels, especially when the plant facilty is engineered correctly.”
Nuclear might be low-carbon compared to fossil fuels, but it also comes with a raft of problems. Part of it is the cost: we’ve always heard it will get cheaper, but it never has. Even the cheapest nuclear power plants are massively over-budget and over their original construction schedules. The industry at the moment is trying to get subsidies from the government, because it knows the figures don’t add up. We should be putting that public money into new technologies.
In the UK, over half the budget of the Department of Energy and Climate Change is being spent on decommissioning nuclear power plants. So, I’m not even talking about the safety aspect. When it does go wrong, the consequences are very widespread and damaging. For all those reasons, we should be putting our investment in renewables instead. Nuclear is a distraction.
What do YOU think? Could greater investment in renewables be a way to guarantee energy security for Europe? Or should EU foreign policy concentrate on building stronger ties with countries rich in oil and gas, even if it means ignoring uncomfortable issues related to civil liberties or democracy? Could nuclear power help make the EU self-sufficient, or is it a distraction? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.