Energy efficiency could release Europe from its reliance on imported gas

Publish date: June 11, 2014

VILNIUS – Europe is close to exhausting its fossil fuel reserves, new studies warn, and, as a result, each year the so-called Energy Dependence Day arrives even earlier for Europe. But the recent scare with short-term problems in gas deliveries could spur European politicians to forge a path toward the long-term goal of energy independence. Energy efficiency, environmentalists say, is the solution.
Concerns over potential problems with gas supply from Russia and the dwindling of Europe’s own fossil fuel reserves push Europe to urgently seek ways to achieve energy independence. Captured in the above picture are pipes for the offshore natural gas pipeline that connected Russia and Germany in 2011. (Photo: Harald Hoyer/ Wikimedia Commons)

VILNIUS – Europe is close to exhausting its fossil fuel reserves, new studies warn, and, as a result, each year the so-called Energy Dependence Day arrives even earlier for Europe. But the recent scare with short-term problems in gas deliveries could spur European politicians to forge a path toward the long-term goal of energy independence. Energy efficiency, environmentalists say, is the solution.

Running on fumes

A report published in May by the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, says a story by the East Anglian Daily Times, shows Europe’s reserves of natural resources are at a critical low. According to the report’s maps of natural resources and their consumption rates, some of which are described in the East Anglian Daily Times story, certain countries have less than a year of energy resources remaining and are almost entirely dependent on imports from suppliers such as Russia, Norway, and Qatar. The UK has only 5.2 years’ worth of oil, 4.5 years of coal, and 3 years of gas remaining. Italy’s predicament is worse, with less than a year of gas and coal, and only one year of oil left. France is even worse off: It has less than a year’s worth of all three fossil fuels remaining.

The forecast is much better for Central and Eastern Europe, according to the story, with 73 years left of coal in Bulgaria and 34 years of coal in Poland. Germany has over 250 years left of coal but less than a year of oil and only 2 years of gas.

By comparison, the paper says, Russia has over 50 years of oil, over 100 years of gas, and over five centuries’ worth of coal.

The East Anglian Daily Times quotes one of the report’s authors, the Global Sustainability Institute director Dr. Aled Jones as saying the European Union is becoming more reliant on its resource-rich neighbors.

“These maps show vulnerability in many parts of the EU and they paint a picture of heavily-indebted European economies coming under increasing threat from rising global energy prices,” Dr. Jones said, according to the paper.

The East Anglian Daily Times also quoted Dr. Jones’ co-author Prof. Victor Anderson as saying that given the critically low levels of remaining coal, oil, and gas resources, Europe needs alternatives, while the UK “urgently needs to be part of a Europe-wide drive to expand renewable energy sources such as wave, wind, tidal, and solar power.”

The Dependence Day

Europe gradually running out of its fossil fuel reserves means that every year the so-called Energy Dependence Day – the day in the year when Europe uses up its own energy sources and can only rely on imports – comes earlier than the year before. This is the conclusion reached in a new study prepared by the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroACE) and presented at the Informal Meeting of EU Energy Ministers on May 16 in Greece’s Athens.

Having researched imported fuel consumption rates in Europe in the past two decades, the study’s authors found that the imports’ yearly share in total energy consumed in the twenty years grew from 43 percent in 1995 to 54 percent in 2011, EuroACE’s press release says. The increase is ascribed in a large part to a combination of rising energy use in buildings and decreased local energy production based on fossil fuels.

According to data from Eurostat, primary energy production from fossil fuels decreased steadily in Europe between 2002 and 2012, with oil accounting for the biggest decrease, at 54 percent (production of renewable energy, at the same time, grew by 81 percent over the same period).

In 2012, 93 percent of oil products consumed in the European Union was covered by imports; that figure was 66 percent for natural gas. The trend since 1990 is towards increased fuel import dependency, Eurostat’s overview says.

As EuroACE’s press release points out, in 1995, the European Union ran out of locally produced energy – and, consequently, was forced to switch to imported energy – on July 26th. In 2011, that day arrived 38 days earlier, on June 18th.

Yet, the alliance says, boosting Europe’s energy efficiency by 40 percent could push the Energy Dependence Day back to October 26th, cutting energy imports by up to 80 percent.

“Such a reduction in energy imports would (at 2012 prices) release up to 335 billion [euros] net into the EU economy per year in unspent revenue on energy imports, and that money could be diverted to financing energy efficiency measures in the EU,” was a quote run by EurActiv from the speech scheduled to be presented at the Athens meeting by EuroACE’s director Adrian Joyce.

A flare-up of a chronic ailment

A world map of natural gas reserves published in a recent study by the Global Sustainability Institute shows for how many years ahead countries can rely on their own gas supply based on 2010 data for yearly consumption rates and proved reserves (areas in white: no reserves; yellow: reserves sufficient for up to 5 years; dark green: countries’ own reserves exceed 100 years’ worth). Qatar has enough gas to last it for over 1,000 years, Norway’s gas is enough for 420 years, and Russia has 108 years of gas left. Europe’s four largest economies – Germany, the UK, France, and Italy – only have enough gas reserves to last them a handful of years. (Map:

“Europe’s energy dependency is of course not new. But it did gain an added dimension in the light of recent events and in a context of growing energy demand worldwide, which is expected to increase by 27 [percent] by 2030,” said President of the European Commission José Barroso in his speech on May 21, referring, in part, to the Ukrainian crisis and the resulting concerns in Europe regarding the stability of future energy supplies from Russia.

President Barroso spoke at the opening of an energy security strategy conference in Brussels.

Because a third of all gas imported by the European Union comes from Russia – and a half of that gas is shipped via Ukraine – the tense negotiations between Moscow and Kiev over continued delivery of natural gas to Ukraine, and payment for the gas already supplied, have become a cause for worry for European leaders.

Six EU member states, as Barroso said in his speech, are completely dependent on Russia as a single source of their entire gas imports, and “three of them use natural gas for more than a quarter of their total energy needs.” Yet, the European Commission’s president said, the energy independence discussion is “vital” for the European Union as a whole and not just of the countries most concerned.

“Our external energy bill today represents more than 1 billion [euros] per day and more than a fifth of total European imports. […] At the same time, dependency is a two-way street,” said Barroso. “It ties both suppliers and customers alike. Russia exports 80 [percent] of its oil and more than 70 [percent] of its gas to the EU – by far the most attractive market for Russia. Its revenues from this trade are key for the Russian budget. That is why we have stressed very firmly over the last months that energy must not be abused as a political weapon. Doing so would only backfire on those who try it.”

Since March, acting at the request of the European Council, the European Commission was preparing an in-depth study of EU energy security and was slated to present a Strategy to reduce Europe’s energy dependence ahead of the European Council scheduled for June 26 and 27.

“[…] This plan will include a strategy to turn the current international situation into an opportunity to rethink the EU’s energy security,” a May 21 press release by the European Commission said.

Suggested measures and experts’ objections

The new policy under development is, however, already coming under criticism from environmental organizations, which say the European Commission’s plan lacks ambitious goals and concrete proposals to promote energy efficiency – even as the potential of such a measure is recognized in the Strategy’s draft version.

The draft Comprehensive plan for the reduction of EU energy dependence proposes such steps toward energy security as diversification of fuel suppliers and urgent measures to improve resilience to sudden disruptions in gas supplies, development of nuclear power projects, and extraction of shale gas and lignite.

“The plan makes it clear that the Commission sees the problem in the “strong dependence from a single external supplier” of energy (Russia), but not in the external supply of energy. Its answer to Europe’s addiction to imported fossil fuel is to look for fossil fuels elsewhere. Any measures mentioned in the plan to help save energy or develop home-grown renewables lack teeth, ambition, and concrete proposals,” wrote Greenpeace EU energy & transport policy director Franziska Achterberg.

“The Commission does a pretty good job at ignoring the elephant in the room – fossil fuels are so scarce in Europe that they can only come from abroad,” Achterberg wrote. “The real solution to this is a reduction in energy demand and a rapid shift to abundant, home-grown renewables.”

In their turn, some of the measures emphasized in the energy security policy under development by the European Commission – such as thehighly-efficient new coal plants” that the Commission’s president, Barroso, mentioned in his speech astomorrow’s energy potential” – are at odds with expert assessments.

A number of scientific reports – for instance, a study published inNovember 2013 by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems – show that already today, an onshore wind power station costs less than a new coal-fired one.

And the November 2013 study into the macroeconomic effects of European shale gas production, carried out by Pöyry Management Consulting and Cambridge Econometrics for the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers – as the British Guardian describes it in an online discussion of whether shale gas is capable of ending Europe’s dependence on gas imports from Russia – predicts “the reliance on Russian gas will increase to 50 [percent] by 2050 regardless of whether shale gas is part of the mix or not”; the study controlled the renewable deployment so that it remained at current levels, one of the study’s authors, John Williams, said.

The Guardian quotes Williams as saying: “There’s nothing in that level of shale gas production that will reduce the dependence on Russia from where we are now. In fact it would still be increasing over time. What you’d need to do, instead of looking at increases of shale gas production you would need to start trying to introduce more energy efficiency measures.”

The Guardian also quotes objections to the purported prospects of shale gas on the part of environmental groups.

“Speeding up fracking is the wrong response to the Ukraine crisis,” said, for instance, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth. “Shale gas won’t deliver until the 2020s at the earliest; is very unlikely to cut energy bills; and it’s another climate-changing fossil fuel.”

Prospects of shale gas as a way to wrest Europe from the grip of dependence on natural gas deliveries from Russia are met by doubts among experts and – in part because of the environmental consequences of using fracking for extraction – opposition on the part of environmentalists. Pictured above: Fracking operation at a Marcellus site in Pennsylvania, the US, April 2013. (Photo: US Geological Survey/ Wikimedia Commons).

Another reason that shale gas is drawing criticism from environmentalists is the ecological consequences of using the method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract it. Anti-fracking initiatives such as Global Frackdown – a worldwide movement that organizes yearly protest actions across dozens of countries and has successfully stopped or passed moratoria on fracking in multiple locations in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere – stress a number of environmental risks that come with fracking.

As a page on the movement’s website says, fracking, which involves injecting a mix of water, sand, and a variety of chemicals – some known as carcinogens – deep underground to break shale rock and release previously unrecoverable deposits of oil and gas, “produces huge amounts of toxic and even radioactive waste,” “causes thousands of accidents, leaks, and spills each year that threaten public health and safety and risk rivers, streams, and shallow aquifers,” “pumps hazardous pollutants into the air,” and “puts vital aquifers at risk for generations by creating new pathways through which contaminants – including the chemicals injected, radioactive brines and methane and other hydrocarbon gases – can flow over long periods of time,” among other potential consequences.

And as far as nuclear energy is concerned, aside the environmental risks, uranium is just as much an imported resource for Europe, with Russia exporting 27 percent of all uranium shipped into the European Union.

Energy efficiency is the key

With all the various remedies being researched, gas consumption in European buildings – which currently take up 61 percent of all natural gas imported into the EU and 40 percent of all energy in the European Union – could, as it turns out, be reduced by 95 percent by 2050 via modernization measures.

This is one of the conclusions presented in “Deep renovation of buildings: An effective way to decrease Europe’s energy import dependency,” a report published by the consulting firm Ecofys.

Using “deep renovation” – understood as year-by-year improvements in buildings’ energy efficiency and use of decentralized renewable energy sources – “the building sector can, quicker than other options, reduce its own imports by 20 percent by 2020, 60 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050,” the report says.

Yet the documents that were under discussion in the European Commission in late May proposed to increase energy efficiency by only between 30 and 35 percent by 2030, as a Reuters story reported. That said, the proposed goal is even weaker than the previous one: At the beginning of the year, the Commission suggested a 40 percent increase in energy efficiency by 2030, but European leaders did not then succeed in coming to an agreement.

Environmentalists and representatives of the green technologies sector call for more ambitious targets.

“Setting a 40 [percent] binding Energy Efficiency target, with a sectoral target for buildings, is essential in order to provide the needed political focus and market certainty which will unlock the huge energy efficiency potential in the EU,” said Susanne Dyrboel, President of EuroACE, in the alliance’s May press release.



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