There is No Energy Transition, No Paradigm Shift or Green Revolution

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The energy crisis that resulted from the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have passed. At least that’s the mainstream view.

Europe escaped what might have been an electric power and heating catastrophe largely because of an exceptionally mild winter. Javier Blas summarized the aftermath in recent comments.

“In that new normal, European gas changes hands at €45 ($48) to €50 per megawatt hour. For many policymakers, who witnessed prices spiking to about €350 in August and feared blackouts and freezing homes, it’s a cause of celebration. The crisis is over, so the thinking goes from Brussels to London. Europe won, Vladimir Putin lost. I wish it was that simple.”

Many frame this outcome as a triumph for Europe’s two-decade experiment with renewable energy. In its February 2023 report European Electricity Review 2022, Ember stated that

“The gas crisis created a paradigm shift for the EU’s electricity transition. Historically Europe’s growing renewables replaced coal power, the most emissions-intensive fuel. However, as a result of soaring gas prices in the second half of 2021, new renewables replaced fossil gas instead.”

Most of that statement is untrue.

The ember report focused on electric power generation which is less than a quarter of Europe’s energy consumption. Yet even within that narrow focus, it is untrue that renewables replaced natural gas much less that a paradigm shift took place.

The percent of fossil fuel contribution to European electric power is unchanged since 2018 (Figure 1). Wind & solar rose from 17% to 23% but natural gas increased from 13% to 19%. Coal fell from 21% to 15% but nuclear fell from 28% to 21% & hydro fell from 14 to 11%.

The contribution of what Ember calls renewables–wind, solar, nuclear and hydro–actually decreased from 59% in 2018 to 55% in 2022. There are of course explanations like the low reservoir levels for hydroelectric power and the nuclear outages in France but these kinds of externalities come with the energy territory.

Figure 1. The percent fossil contribution to European electric power is unchanged since 2018. Wind & solar rose from 17% to 23% but natural gas increased from 13% to 19%. Coal fell from 21% to 15% but nuclear fell from 28% to 21% & hydro fell from 14 to 11%. Source: Eurostat & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Although gas consumption fell about 13% in 2022 compared to 2021, it’s relative contribution to the electric power energy mix saw the greatest increase as shown in Figure 1 and its accompanying table.

The broader perspective is that electric power only represents 23% of final energy consumption for Europe (Figure 2). That means that wind and solar only account for 5.3% of European final energy consumption, and that all non-fossil sources including wind and solar account for only 12.6%.

Fossil fuels still make up 72% of European energy consumption. The grand green experiment of the last two decades has not done much to free Europe from dependence on fossil energy.

Figure 2. European fossil fuel consumption has decreased from 77% in 2012 to 72% in 2021.Electric power has remained constant at 23% of final energy consumption. Source: Eurostat & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Ember is not the only source of self-congratulatory reports on Europe’s survival during the winter of 2022-2023. Yale Environment 360 published a report in March 2023 called Averting Crisis, Europe Learns to Live Without Russian Energy.

Faced with the cutoff of Russian gas and oil, Europe ramped up solar and wind power, got serious about energy conservation, and tweaked policies to speed its green transition. Despite fears of increased emissions this winter, the EU remained on track to meet its climate goals.

That is untrue. I’ve already shown that the ramp up in solar and wind was not the reason that Europe survived the winter. Nor was it something that happened in response to the energy crisis but rather was part of a progressive increase that began more than a decade ago.

More importantly, Europe began increasing LNG imports in September 2021 before the Ukraine crisis began (Figure 3). By the time Russian gas supply began to decrease in earnest, LNG had largely replaced it.

Figure 3. Europe began increasing LNG imports in September 2021 before the Ukraine crisis. By the time Russian gas supply began to decrease, LNG had largely replaced it. Source: Bruegel & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It may surprise some to learn that the European Union remains the third largest importer of Russian fossil fuels in May 2023. Europe continues to import Russian natural gas, petroleum liquids, LNG and crude oil (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Top five importers of Russian fossil fuels, May 1 – May 7, 2023. Source: CREA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

This is what the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) calls the laundromat. The laundromat consists of countries that continue to import Russian fossil fuels and re-export them or their finished products back to price-cap coalition countries.  Laundromat countries include China, India, Turkey, the UAE and Singapore (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The Laundromat: How the price cap coalition whitewashes Russian oil in third countries. Source: CREA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

For as much as I enjoy the laundromat model, it’s not that simple at least for oil. Increased volumes from the U.S. and Norway along with continued exports from Kazakhstan, Iraq, Libya and the U.K. more than compensated for the loss of Russian crude (Figure 6). The laundromat countries are presumably included in “other” although it is difficult to see any increase in that volume since the Ukraine conflict began.

Figure 6. The loss of Russian imports did not decrease the volume of total crude oil available to Europe in 2022 and early 2023. Increased volumes from the U.S. and Norway more than offset lost Russian oil. Source: Eurostat & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol summarized the global energy situation one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“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.”

I doubt that any of those statements can be supported with data.

His comments certainly do not apply to Europe where there has has been more than a decade of aggressive renewable investment, where the financial policies and strength are in place, and where the motivation could not have been stronger. If not in Europe, where are Birol’s claims true?

The Cost

Largely unmentioned in the good news reporting about Europe’s renewable energy experiment is its cost. Approximately $1.2 trillion has been invested in renewable energy projects since 2004.

Figure 7 shows that the price of natural gas to Europe in 2022 was more than three times what it paid in 2021, an increase from $120 to $390 billion dollars. That’s just for the gas and does not include the cost for the new import terminals.

Figure 7. Export revenues to key natural gas suppliers to the European Union, 2022-2021 comparison. Source: IEA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The cost for European imports of crude oil and petroleum refined products increased €137 (+72%) (Figure 8). Some of the increase in both oil and natural gas was because their commodity prices were higher in 2022 than in 2021. Much of it, however, was because Europe was willing to pay a premium for energy security.

Figure 8. The cost for European petroleum liquids increased €137 (+72%) in 2022. Source: Eurostat & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

European government subsidies, bailouts, and backstops to consumers and businesses are estimated to have cost about $276 billion in 2022. In addition, there are the intangible costs of lost revenues.

 

Getting Honest About the Human Predicament

Simon Michaux has analyzed the paths to phasing out fossil fuels.

“Replacing the existing fossil fuel powered system (oil, gas, and coal), using renewable technologies, such as solar panels or wind turbines, will not be possible for the entire global human population. There is simply just not enough time, nor resources to do this by the current target set by the World’s most influential nations…Inevitably, this leads to the conclusion that the existing renewable energy sectors and the EV technology systems are merely steppingstones to something else, rather than the final solution.”

His research has been attacked recently by Nafeez Ahmed and Auke Hoekstra. They challenge Michaux’s assumption that a substantial renewable energy storage buffer is needed to cover weather-related intermittency in a 100% renewable future without natural gas backup systems. They argue that technology advances and recycling will overcome most constraints on limited material resources.*

I mention this dispute between Michaux and his critics because it illustrates the gap between data and the techno-optimism of renewable energy true-believers. I favor a future based on renewables but am confident that they cannot support our current civilization’s growth expectations. I am prepared to accept and deal with the outcome of that future vision but I cannot imagine that most people will agree.

I believe that energy substitution is a doomsday stratagem that condemns civilization to its status quo path of growth & biophysical destruction.

No amount of non-fossil energy will make a difference unless we lower total energy consumption & accept its consequence of no growth.

Climate change is a big problem but it is a subset of the larger problem of overshoot. We have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. Continued economic and material growth based on renewable energy does not begin to resolve that fundamental reality.

Ahmed and Hoekstra typify the naive view that somehow, someone will figure all of this out. Meanwhile we should just keep pushing forward with renewable energy despite its failure to make any material difference when it was needed over the last year in Europe. They further make sport of shooting the messenger that warns them that facts do not support their plans. I wonder if they’ve seen Don’t Look Up?

What is clear a year after the Ukraine invasion is that renewables are a relatively small add-on to Europe’s energy supply. There is no energy transition. There is no paradigm shift or green revolution.

Europe survived the winter of 2022-2023 by obtaining enough fossil energy to make up for lost Russian supply. That’s not a criticism of renewable energy. It’s a fact that we must acknowledge.

*It is worth mentioning that neither Ahmed nor Hoekstra have training or experience in science or energy while Michaux holds degrees in geology and physics with emphasis on metallurgy, mining and engineering.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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3 Comments

  1. Iain McDonald on August 11, 2023 at 2:19 pm

    Fascinating analysis Art, and very well argued. I don’t know if the 2023 report is available yet, summarizing the data for 2022 but I suspect it will be harder to paint as rosy a picture for renewables with that. Germany went hard on coal, and then belatedly on LNG, for its grid didn’t care what the impact was on the developing world. Now they have an even bigger gap to bridge with the closure of their last three nuclear plants. This winter is going to be very revealing, especially if it’s a lot colder than last year. I greatly enjoy your content, your tweets and your sober perspective. Keep up the good work.

  2. David B on June 13, 2023 at 2:49 am

    After carefully reading a few of Ahmed’s posts, I went back and tried to follow the logic on the supposed refutation of Michaux’s 28 day storage requirement. Some hours later, I have emerged totally convinced that Ahmed is dead wrong on the storage requirements, at least. One of the linked articles from Ahmed’s posts suggested that storing power could be avoided by overbuilding Solar and Wind and just throwing away the excess generated power; apparently without a moment’s consideration to what would happen on a calm night, when there will be no power no matter how overbuilt the system is. The article also suggested that electricity would become too cheap to meter, as if Jevons paradox wouldn’t instantly come into play to absorb every bit of the capacity that is developed. I truly don’t understand what would motivate a post like that, which is sure to confuse and derail many people who might otherwise have confronted an important truth.

  3. John Thompson on May 20, 2023 at 1:10 pm

    Art,

    Thank you for taking the time to share this analysis with your readers.

    Best,

    John

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