Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Recognizing roots of global energy crisis might help us move toward solutions

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago is one of the great tragedies of the 21st century – millions of lives lost or disrupted, untold destruction, and economic upset throughout the world.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) tells us that one of the terrible outcomes of the invasion and subsequent war was to create a global energy crisis (Where things stand in the global energy crisis one year on). In this commentary, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol says:

“It is important here to stress that the energy crisis is global. Although some of the biggest disruptions have been felt in Europe and made a lot of the headlines – major impacts are being felt in many emerging and developing economies. For example, we see this clearly in the number of people worldwide who lack access to electricity, the large majority of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa. This number rose last year for the first time in decades as energy prices spiked amid the crisis.”

Dr. Birol’s commentary discusses the vagaries of global oil and gas supply, emphasizing the overall instability and the over-reliance on Russian supplies. He also applauds the growth of low-emissions energy:

“The amount of renewable power capacity added worldwide rose by about a quarter in 2022; global electric car sales leaped by close to 60%; investments in energy efficiency jumped; installations of heat pumps surged, especially in Europe; and nuclear power is making a strong comeback.”

No problem with those observations – alternative energy sources and more efficient energy use have progressed strongly in recent years, and will continue to do so.

And so the report concludes:

“My hope and expectation is that governments will take even stronger policy action to further accelerate clean energy transitions – not only to reduce emissions but also because this crisis has made clear that faster transitions offer a way to enhance energy security and to benefit from a huge opportunity for jobs and industrial growth.

“As we at the IEA have said since early on, the only lasting solution to both the current energy crisis and the climate crisis lies in a rapid transition to clean energy.”

 Is this a realistic assessment? Does a solution to our current energy crisis lie in rapid transition to “clean” energy? Let’s dig in on that a bit.

First, back to the Russian invasion. Did that single event create the global energy crisis?

Of course not.

Global political leaders, particularly in Europe, have for years been setting the stage for energy crisis by promoting policies that reduce energy supply. Much of Europe has halted new oil and gas exploration and development by banning hydraulic fracturing. This is particularly true in Germany, where large oil and gas resources in low-permeability reservoirs in the Rotliegend and Zechstein formations are available to be released by modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. There are others attending this party as well – Quebec, New York, and Nova Scotia all have significant shale gas resources sterilized by fracking bans.

New nuclear power generation has been discouraged in some countries, either directly or by invoking unrealistically stringent regulatory burdens. New nuclear projects face up to 20 years hurdling regulatory, financial, and social barriers. Germany has gone a step further and is about to shut down its last remaining nuclear power stations.

Why are energy supplies being systematically eroded?

Because government policy has been driven by emissions reduction goals without adequate regard for energy security. Months before the Russian invasion, energy shortages were growing and prices were rising across Europe, driven in part by increasing dependence on intermittent wind and solar, particularly poorer than expected output from European wind power generators.

We are beginning to see similar signs of crisis in the United States. Some jurisdictions are restricting access to oil and gas by refusing to license new pipelines, or trying to shut down existing pipelines. Some municipalities will not allow natural gas hookups to new housing. Electrical grid operators face enormous challenges trying to balance intermittent power supply from wind and solar against the constant demands placed on their grids by consumers.

The pattern is the same around the world. Energy crises are being created or exacerbated by poorly considered policies to reduce energy supply from sources not considered to be “green” – fossil fuels, and in some places nuclear – without ensuring that adequate replacements are operating and capable of dealing with demand challenges. As Birol noted, low-emissions energy sources are growing – but they aren’t growing fast enough to replace the energy sources being taken offline. They also fail to support resiliency in energy supply because they are not dispatchable – they can’t be called upon when necessary, but only when they happen to be available.

Europe was approaching an energy crisis before Russia invaded Ukraine because they reduced the resiliency of their own energy systems. They relied heavily on Russian oil and gas, so it was easy for Russia to tip Europe into full-fledged crisis by reducing gas exports. Energy shortages were happening already, and a full-fledged crisis was inevitable under European energy policy (or lack thereof); the Russian invasion just made it happen a little sooner.

The United States is seeing more energy problems every year – electrical blackouts, uncertain grid supply, and volatile fuel prices – as policies and actions focused on emissions reduction undermine energy resiliency and security. We have not suffered as badly in Canada yet, in large part because our electrical grids are powered mostly by hydro and nuclear, which have not been curtailed in the drive for low emissions. North America is unlikely to suffer a European-style energy crisis anytime soon, simply because of our enormous domestic energy resources.

So do the solutions to the world’s current energy woes lie in “rapid transition to clean energy”?

No. In fact, the cause of many of today’s problems is the destruction of energy resiliency by attempting to transition to ‘clean’ energy too rapidly. Resilient energy systems producing adequate, affordable, and always-available energy must be diverse, flexible, and built to local strengths.

Europe cannot survive on wind, solar, wood, and geothermal. Nuclear, oil, gas, and coal must continue to be part of the mix. Policymakers ignoring that reality condemn their nations to ongoing energy crisis – and are forced to adopt expensive and environmentally damaging stopgap measures such as accelerated lignite mining and emergency construction of floating LNG regasification terminals, as we are seeing today.

So, Dr. Birol – the solutions to the energy crises of today lie not in doing more of the same. Focusing on renewables while discouraging other energy sources is largely responsible for reduced energy security and higher, economy-damaging prices. The long-term solutions – the only kind that count – lie in rebuilding diverse, resilient energy systems incorporating the best and most secure energy sources.

Societies with energy security can afford to reduce environmental impacts. Societies without energy security are too busy scrambling to survive.

Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes has a PhD in geology from the University of Alberta and is president of Petrel Robertson Consulting Ltd., a geoscience consulting firm addressing technical and strategic issues around oil and gas development, water resource management, helium exploration, geothermal energy, and carbon sequestration. He is an adjunct professor in the University of Alberta Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

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