By launching a bloody invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has done more than almost any other human being to hasten the end of the fossil fuel age.
Immediately after the February 24 invasion, EU countries rushed to reduce their dependence on Russian coal, oil and gas imports, replacing them with gas from elsewhere and increasing short-term significance of coal-fired electricity. That’s why Putin was named the most influential person in POLITICO’s Green 28, the top ranking of those who mark EU green policies – for better or for worse.
But beyond that, an increase in green energy and energy-saving measures is emerging, marking a permanent shift in the momentum of EU climate efforts.
“Of [a] From a climate point of view, the war in Ukraine can be considered a blessing,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, on Tuesday. “We are going to invest a lot more in renewable energy, energy saving solutions.”
The EU’s Green Deal aimed to make the bloc carbon neutral by 2050 – but, thanks to Putin, going green is now part of the EU’s security agenda.
“Advancing the transition with renewable energy is a strategic necessity for Europe and the world,” said Francesco La Camera, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency. “In the medium and long term, the Ukrainian crisis will accelerate the transition to clean and particularly renewable energies.”
In response to the invasion, the bloc proposed the REPowerEU package. Announcement less than two weeks after Russian troops entered Ukraine, it aims to cut gas imports from Russia by two-thirds this year (which the Kremlin helped turn off the taps on its own) and to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels before the end of the decade.
“We can do it, and we can do it fast,” European Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said at the time. “All we need is guts and guts to get there.”
But the next few years will not be easy. The invasion took the EU halfway through its energy transformation. Much of the foundation for a greener future is in place, but capacity in everything from training workers to insulating buildings and installing wind towers to cutting red tape administrative procedures for wind and solar permits, the redesign of networks to manage renewable energies and the increase in hydrogen production, is still a work in progress.
The funding of REPowerEU and its increased renewable energy targets are still being debated within the European institutions, but consumers, companies and some national governments are reacting clearly.
Country after country, war and the resulting energy crisis have been cited as further justification for increased spending on climate-friendly programs, accelerating a green shift already underway.
In REPowerEU, Brussels provided national governments with a list of policies, including cutting red tape for renewable energy projects and boosting clean energy and energy efficiency targets.
The response has been uneven. In many capitals, political attention has focused on securing gas for the looming winter, rather than on driving green policy. But new policies have been launched across the bloc. Romania has supercharged its short-term renewable energy targets, Estonia has agreed to decarbonize all its electricity by 2030 and Greece has introduced its first offshore wind policy.
The crisis has also added momentum and a bit of national security flair to the often unsexy subject of improving Europe’s energy efficiency.
Renovating homes and generally improving energy efficiency had been an important part of many national COVID recovery strategies, backed by the EU’s pandemic recovery plan, but now politicians have been able to brighten up references to polystyrene foam and glass windows with the war.
That was the message when the Dutch government launched a €4 billion program to renovate 2.5 million homes by 2030 a few weeks after the invasion, and again in July, when the German Development Fund climate and transformation included 56.3 billion euros for the renovation of buildings.
Heat pumps are sexy
In some sectors, the acceleration is evident. Make no mistake, said Jan Rosenow, European director of the NGO Regulatory Assistance Project and a longtime tracker of efficient heating technologies – the age of the heat pump began in 2022.
“We are only at the beginning of a curve that will only go up in the years to come, and it will go up quickly,” he said.
Heat pumps are replacing gas boilers – so far Europe’s preferred heating system – with one powered by increasingly cleaner electricity. REPowerEU calls for doubling the pace of installations, which would mean 10 million additional heat pumps in five years.
The initial cost of the installation is several thousand euros upper than a boiler. But with gas prices soaring, heat pumps pay for themselves much faster than before. As a result, demand exploded.
In Finland, where four out of ten homes are already equipped with a heat pump, sales jumped 80% in the first half. In Norway, where 60% of households are equipped, growth was more modest at 11%.
In the Netherlands, Poland, Italy and Austria, industry bodies or manufacturers are all reporting a doubling of sales in the first half compared to 2021.
In January, heat pumps accounted for 28% of applications for subsidies for heating systems under a Polish government program; in June, this figure rose to 60%.
In August, 148,000 Germans applied for a new round of government funding for heat pumps; there were 150,000 applications for the whole of last year.
“Fasten Your Seatbelt”, the heat pump industry body said at the time.
However, the explosive growth is not uniform. In other countries, including Belgium, electricity taxes mean heat pumps are even less attractive compared to fossil fuel systems, Rosenow said.
REPowerEU aims to accelerate solar panel installations by two and a half times compared to 2020.
EU-wide data for installations in 2022 is not yet available, but there is an indirect measure. Monthly solar panel imports from China – where more than three-quarters of European panels are made – reached $2.5 billion in July from around $1 billion a month before the war, according to data shared with POLITICO by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).
In March, there was a surge of interest, partly driven by a desire to “order solar panels to hit Putin,” said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at BNEF. This is underpinned by soaring electricity prices due to the war, which makes solar power installations more attractive. “I think now it’s probably a lot more freaked out about what the electric bill will be this winter,” she said.
Wind farms are not quick to build, meaning there is no visible upsurge in new construction as a result of the war. But the political signal is clear.
In August, eight countries around the Baltic Sea agreed to increase offshore wind capacity fivefold to 20 gigawatts by 2030, which could cover the energy consumption of 6 million homes. The deal showed the countries “harnessing the power of the wind to free themselves from Russian fossil fuels,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the time.
The Netherlands doubled its offshore wind ambitions for 2030 in March and Ireland did so in July. Portugal raised its target for its first wind power auction last month.
In Poland, where the Nationalist government had long blocked most onshore wind developments, there has been a change of heart. A bill watering down some of the strict wind rules is currently before Parliament.
The gas loses its luster
Putin has also derailed the plans of a generation of European policymakers for cheap Russian gas to serve as a “bridge” between highly polluting coal and renewable green energy.
“The bridge just got a lot more expensive,” said Stefan Ulrich, senior European gas partner at BNEF.
The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines – it is suspected that the explosions were the work of Russia – signals that the change is permanent. Without one of the largest and cheapest sources of natural gas in the world, “you’re basically raising the price of gas,” Ulrich said. In turn, this “makes gas less attractive as a bridging fuel for the energy transition”.
Gas has become so unattractive that even coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is favoured. The short-term impact is far more polluting as countries from Germany and Poland to Greece and Italy turn to coal to generate desperately needed electricity. This effect is expected to last until the end of the decade, with more coal expected in the system than before the war. But no country has significantly reversed its coal phase-out plans, and Germany has even pledged to speed it up.
“Coal isn’t making a comeback in Europe, nor is gas. They’re just not able to compete with cheaper renewables,” said Paweł Czyżak, senior energy and climate data analyst at the research group. Ember green reflection.
There is a surge in orders for temporary floating terminals needed to regasify liquefied natural gas freeze shipments. Ember has tracked 22 such announcements since the invasion, according to data shared with POLITICO, but no new permanent land installations have been approved so far.
The war tipped the scales away from the gas that Russia used to trap Europe, probably for good. It also changed the rationale for the Green Deal.
Announcing a new fundraising campaign for REPowerEU last week, von der Leyen said it was the right thing to do, “not only for the climate, but also because the transition to clean energy is the best way to to gain independence and to have the security of reserve energy.”
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