Is Europe's energy crisis undermining its strategic autonomy?

The EU and the UK will need to rebuild their nuclear capacities to deal with shortages and maintain independence

The Dutch town of Groningen is placid and prosperous, very much an idealised part of the core European success story. Except when it is shaken by the Earth's tremors.

Those quakes – there was a powerful instance that measured 3.4 magnitude on the Richter scale just last year – forced the government into the premature closure of the vast natural gas field that lies beneath the town. As an energy crisis grips Europe this autumn, Groningen is now the hinge on which the EU and its power industry face the growing challenge.

Shutdowns loom around Europe this winter, as the price of natural gas has soared to the equivalent of paying $250 a barrel of oil. It is not that there isn't enough gas in the world. Nor is it that supply relationships with the major producers are not well established.

A combination of factors are at play: Asian countries are buying their supplies early, there are restrictions from some producer countries, and policies within Europe are changing, as the EU attempts to address the climate agenda. If there is to be a winter discontent, it will serve as an indictment of the EU’s strategic agenda. Meanwhile, as a country transiting out of the bloc’s orbit, the UK has been equally enmeshed in the gas shortfalls and could yet be worst hit.

The rush to renewable energy has been very successful in Europe. Costs of switching to wind in particular have fallen and efficiency levels in the industry have surpassed all expectations. Headlines around the continent have proclaimed record runs of power generated without a contribution from coal-fired plants. The UK, which launched the Industrial Revolution off the back of its coal mines, went for almost 68 days without using the carbon-costly fuel.

This September, however, abruptly ruined the party. The doldrums struck. There has been no wind. While the weather is pleasant, everyone is suddenly worried about how to keep warm in winter.

Russia has played a big part in these jitters. It has submitted only small bids for transmission capacity on pipelines for natural gas transiting through Poland and Ukraine. Moscow is eyeing a bigger prize of supplies flowing through its new Nord Stream pipeline directly to the Western European countries. So the squeeze has stopped nations replenishing depleted storage facilities.

Localised opposition to production in areas such as Groningen, Europe’s largest onshore field, has deprived the policymakers of buffers under their own control. Now Dutch leaders are scrambling to see if the field can be ramped up again.

Other countries face similar issues. The UK abandoned US-style fracking in recent years. As yet, there is no sign that decision will be reversed, even though the Boris Johnson government seemed keen to do so when it came to power in 2019.

The post-pandemic situation is not helping. A large chunk of the UK’s gas production is currently offline, as maintenance delayed last year is being carried out only now. Norway, meanwhile, has hiked its output but also has to worry about building up its stocks that were depleted in last year’s very harsh weather.

Everywhere you look there is a dilemma to face.

Europe has talked much about strategic autonomy for most of this century. Its energy sector is a case in point. It is easy for Europe to make itself exceptional when it comes to ruling that there should be a single standard for mobile phone chargers, or set its own rules for how data generated by its citizens is exploited across the border.

Energy, however, is not within its gift.

Certain countries have done very well with renewables but without battery technology breakthroughs or hydrogen production at scale, there cannot be an exclusive reliance on renewables. Nuclear is emerging as the key alternative to carbon-based fuel systems. The problem is that some countries, such as Germany, have abandoned it. Others, such as Britain, are retiring more capacity than they are bringing online.

View of a cooling tower at the Golfech nuclear plant on the edge of the Garonne river between Agen and Toulouse, France, July 19, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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Without battery technology breakthroughs or hydrogen production at scale, there cannot be an exclusive reliance on renewables

Failure to be bold is no longer a luxury for the UK now that it has left the EU. Yet, the government has only flirted with an offer by Rolls-Royce to bring small nuclear reactor technology to the grid within a decade or so. Rather than invest in mega-projects, the engine builder believes it has a viable model for regional nuclear plants that would provide an alternative pathway.

Britain’s Sizewell C nuclear reactor is at least under construction, but a separate US-backed project suffered a blow last year when a Japanese firm pulled out of a deal to supply the technology. Now Rolls-Royce is pressing its case to be a part of that project and wants fast-track approval of its intelligent technology. It maintains that the facility can come online around 2030. Politicians on the government backbench see the whiff of unpopularity in the energy crisis and some have started to speak up for the Rolls-Royce approach.

Renewable energy has been a great boon for Europe. It truly is a great advantage to have done so much so quickly. But reliability of supply is the ultimate challenge. If the Europeans can crack that, the goal of regional and even global autonomy is within their grasp.

The events of this hauntingly placid September have asked serious questions of the Europeans. A decade into the future, the solutions must be in place.

Published: September 25th 2021, 2:00 PM
Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.