Rhein on Energy and Climate

The European winter 2011-12 will go down in history as divided into two unequal parts: very mild until mid-January and in the first half of February.

It is therefore appropriate to draw a few lessons.

  • The 2011-12 winter offers no evidence that climate change is a chimera.

It is there more than ever, marked by eccentric weather events. That is exactly what this winter has been showing with the extreme cold in the first half of February due to atypical wind and air pressure constellations between the depths of Siberia and the Azores islands.

  • Europe has been able to face the extreme temperatures thanks to well-stocked gas reserves and European the gas and electricity grids functioning much better than during earlier winters. Without ample gas stocks West Europeans would have suffered badly from the cold temperatures, if they had lasted much longer.
  • Prices for gas, oil and electricity have risen to “astronomical” heights, in particular during peak times, a proof that market forces function, inducing consumers to reduce their energy consumption. It would be foolish to administer energy prices, as suggested in some member states.
  • Nuclear and renewable and energies, with the exception of biogas and wood pellets, have shown their limits in providing sufficient thermal energy.

Solar thermal energy has proved inadequate for generating enough heating water.

PV panels have been able to generate plenty of electricity during midday sun; but this electricity is not well suited for massive supply of thermal energy. To fully use it, member states, with the exception of France, will have to change their heating systems, which requires major investments.

  • In the short- and medium term, diversity of supply and grids, combined with a functioning price mechanism, are the key ingredients for coping with extreme supply and demand situations in cold weather.
  • The most serious issue remains that of providing enough thermal energy in the long-term future when we can no longer rely on fossil or nuclear energies. Assuming that by 2050 essentially all electricity will come from renewable sources, we shall still be dependent on gas, coal, fuel and nuclear to heat our buildings; and prices for fossil sources are likely to have doubled or even tripled by then. As a matter of precaution, we should therefore enhance the thermal energy efficiency by insulating buildings so perfectly that with normal winter temperatures we can do without fossil fuels.

Two policy conclusions:

  • Europe should launch a massive thermal renovation programme of its building stock. As the European Commission has called for in 2011. Europe should renovate at least 3 per cent of its building stock annually. This would by the same token reduce our intolerably high unemployment.
  • Europe should start adapting its heating systems for full-scale use of solar and wind energy when fossil fuels will have become so scarce and expensive that we can no longer rely on them, say by 2100.
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