The EU Needs Alternatives to Russian Energy. Here’s the Plan.

In Brief

The EU Needs Alternatives to Russian Energy. Here’s the Plan.

Europe has long been reliant on Russian natural gas, but the war in Ukraine is forcing governments to look for different energy sources. 

Europe is scrambling to find alternatives to Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine. With consumers facing the highest energy prices on record and potential gas rationing or blackouts this winter, there are fears of an even worse crisis next year. 

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European Union (EU) countries are pursuing a range of replacements, but some of these have environmental drawbacks, while others could take years to be put into use. Here are four ways EU countries are reducing dependence on Russia.

Returning to Coal Temporarily

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In an effort to limit natural gas usage, some European countries are burning more coal this winter, slowing previous agreements to phase it out. Coal is the dirtiest energy source, accounting for around 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use. However, it remains widely available and can be used immediately in existing power plants.

Germany, which has vowed to stop using coal by 2030, is shifting some power plants back to coal. Economy minister Robert Habeck called the move “bitter but indispensable” for Berlin’s goal of ending all Russian gas imports by mid-2024. Likewise, France has reopened a recently closed coal plant, the Netherlands removed a production cap on coal power, and many other EU countries are similarly embracing coal

Smoke rises over the clouds from power plants in Poland
Smoke billows from one of Europe’s largest coal-fired power plants, in Zlobnica, Poland. Kuba Stezycki/Reuters

Accessing New Sources of Gas

Nearly 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas, some 155 billion cubic meters (bcm), came from Russia last year. With European homes and businesses set to be dependent on gas for at least the next decade, the search is on for other sources.

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North Sea energy has already filled some of the gap. Norway overtook Russia as Europe’s largest piped gas supplier after increasing output to 122 bcm this year, an 8 percent increase compared to 2021, and it opened a new pipeline to Poland in October. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (UK) are also boosting production and green-lighting new gas projects, though many of these will take years to come online. Analysts say there is a ceiling to this strategy, as supplies in the North Sea are running out.   

Another avenue is liquefied natural gas (LNG). The United States has said it will increase its LNG exports to the EU from fifteen bcm this year to fifty bcm annually by 2030, or about one-third of the gas supply previously provided by Russia. The increased demand has also set off a “dash for gas” from African countries with significant reserves, such as Egypt and Nigeria. Eastern Mediterranean gas production is being expanded as well. But there are difficulties: more LNG, which is shipped by sea, will require new coastal import terminals and distribution pipelines. The construction of such facilities generally takes two to three years. 

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European Union

Energy and Environment

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Geopolitics of Energy

Renewable Energy

Meanwhile, the EU has fast-tracked some pipeline projects, including a deal with Azerbaijan that aims to eventually double the country’s current eight bcm per year of gas exports. But other accelerated pipeline plans have faced legal challenges from conservation groups. Environmental advocates worry that investing in new natural gas infrastructure will disincentivize the switch to renewables. 

Renewing Nuclear

There remains no consensus on nuclear energy among EU countries; about half currently produce any. France leads the bloc, using nuclear for nearly 70 percent of its electricity needs. At the other extreme is Germany, which had planned to shut down its last plants this year. In the 1990s, it was getting one-third of its power from nuclear sources.

Russia’s war has shifted the debate. Germany has now put off closing its remaining three nuclear plants until at least 2023. Several other European countries, including Finland, Spain, and Sweden, have increased their nuclear plants’ capacities. 

But seriously boosting nuclear energy would be challenging. More than half of France’s reactors are currently shut down due to maintenance issues, limiting its export abilities. Germany’s reactors account for just 6 percent of its electricity, but building more would take nearly a decade, and Russian companies currently provide much of the uranium necessary to operate them.

Developing Renewables

The EU has rolled out an ambitious renewable energy plan that it hopes will achieve two goals: reducing emissions and eliminating the need for Russian fossil fuels. The plan, known as RePowerEU, seeks to have 45 percent of the bloc’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030, up from 22 percent in 2020. The EU foresees investing more than $210 billion in the plan by 2027. This will build upon previous plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning the amount of greenhouse gas emitted would be equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere. 

In addition, the EU has pledged to invest in infrastructure for hydrogen and biomethane, which are cleaner alternatives to gas, while doubling wind and solar capacity. EU members also aim to decrease overall energy consumption by 15 percent through voluntary measures such as turning down the heat in public buildings and encouraging the public to limit use of household appliances. 

Proponents of the plan say that these measures taken together can replace some two-thirds of the energy previously supplied by Russia. Still, the International Energy Agency forecasts that although the EU will dramatically expand use of renewables by 2030, it will fall short of the RePowerEU goal due to challenges in boosting renewable capacity.

Jacqueline Jedrych is an editorial intern at CFR.

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