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Barbaric war on Ukraine proves need to rethink energy security

Importantly, renewables carry energy security risks of their own.

International President Newton B. Jones

Vladimir Putin’s barbaric and criminal war on Ukraine is a nightmare unleashed by a madman and tyrant. The humanitarian disaster playing out daily on our TV screens is heartbreaking to witness. For those of us with family ties and friendships in Ukraine, the invasion is especially alarming and disturbing.

In whatever manner this crisis inevitably ends, nations must rethink their approach to energy security, for energy is central to how this war began and how the West has responded. And energy insecurity may well lead to future conflicts as nations compete for scarce resources.

Sales from Russia’s vast fossil fuel stocks (Russia is the world’s second largest exporter of natural gas and third largest exporter of crude oil) have enabled the Putin regime to modernize and expand its military and adopt an aggressive posture against its adversaries and neighbors.

With Europe dependent on Russia for 40% of its gas imports to heat homes and generate power, European members of NATO have been hesitant to risk too strong a response to Putin’s war. Instead, they have opted to reduce those imports by two thirds by the end of 2022.

For now, the EU is still getting its Russian gas, and Russia is still getting its gas revenues to help continue its war.

Some argue that Europe’s energy dependency on Russia is the result of an over-reliance on green energy. Germany, among other European countries, has banned fracking for oil and gas. It has shut down most coal-fired power plants. And it has committed to decommissioning its few remaining nuclear power plants by the end of the year.

France, which gets 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants (which produce zero carbon emissions), has been under intense pressure to wean itself off of nuclear in favor of wind and solar.

North America faces energy security challenges of its own. The US has had to reach out to the Middle East and Venezuela in an effort to increase oil supplies (while terminating its minimal Russian oil imports).

Powerful green energy lobbies in Canada and the US continue pushing for rapid adoption of wind and solar technologies while seeking to end fossil fuel subsidies and pressuring banks to deny loans for fossil projects.

Meanwhile, the supply chain for exporting North American fossil fuels suffers. Cancellation of the Keystone XL project prevents Canadian oil from reaching Gulf refineries, and ultimately foreign markets. New liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals have been impacted by environmental concerns and global market conditions.

Exports that could help friendly nations achieve more energy security–have been stymied.

The West has spent enormous sums on wind and solar, but the fact remains that these investments have not produced energy security. The intermittent nature of renewables makes them less reliable than other energy sources. Renewables must be backed up with flexible gas plants or baseload coal plants.

Further, massive grid-scale batteries that can capture excess renewable energy (at times when the wind does blow and the sun does shine) are expensive and can only produce electricity for short periods.

Despite the downside of wind and solar, the war on Ukraine has led Germany to accelerate its goal of 100% renewable electricity, moving its timetable from 2050 to 2035. Other proponents of wind and solar are also calling for a more rapid build-out.

Importantly, renewables carry energy security risks of their own. The rare earth metals that are essential to manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines are concentrated in China and a handful of other countries. In 2019, China threatened the U.S. with an embargo on rare earth metals, and it has been accused of hoarding those resources for its own internal use.

China’s rare earths dominance gives that nation leverage over other countries that are dependent on renewables. That’s especially worrisome, given China’s record on humanitarian oppression, its close ties with Putin, its military expansionism and its belligerent actions toward Taiwan.

Now that energy security is in sharper focus globally, governments in North America, Europe and indeed around the world would be wise to rethink what it means to be energy secure.

The Boilermakers have long supported an approach that is well diversified. An all-of-the-above energy policy offers resilience in the face of aggression, natural disasters or other disruptions. A portfolio that includes hydrogen; fossil fuels with carbon capture, use and storage; nuclear; and renewables offers the best hope for a low-carbon, net-zero future.

We might never know to what degree Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and oil factored into Vladimir Putin’s calculation on invading Ukraine. He is an evil man. But the suffering, death and destruction we have witnessed at his hands are compelling reasons to make energy security one of our highest priorities.

Let us hope and pray, in the meantime, that the courageous people of Ukraine persevere in their desperate struggle for survival.