Energy Transition Europe—How Homes Can Help the EU Get off Fossil Fuels

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For many of our friends in Europe, Russia’s war on Ukraine has thrown greater focus on the need for a just energy transition.

Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas has meant that countries are implementing sanctions on the one hand in an effort to stop the Russian invasion, but funding that invasion on the other through the purchase of billions of euros of oil and gas.

On March 2, Roman Shakhmatenko, the Ukraine’s deputy environment minister, gave the UN Environment Assembly a powerful reason to boycott Russian fossil fuel companies: he said, “because they’re using this money to kill people.” He wasn’t being hyperbolic—he was speaking from the environment ministry’s bomb shelter.

And as American and European administrators explore the idea of banning Russian oil imports, talk has increased about how to speed up the EU’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

In this post, we’ll talk about how individuals can use their homes to help that transition happen, but first, for our non-European friends, a primer on the energy situation in the EU.

Fossil Fuels and Energy Insecurity in the EU

Europe runs on fossil fuels, much of which have to be imported. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, in 2019 “more than half of the EU’s energy needs were met by net imports. This rate ranges from over 90% in Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus to 5% in Estonia. The dependency rate on energy imports has increased since 2000, when it was just 56%.”

Russia is the third largest oil producer in the world and Europe’s biggest supplier of oil and gas. Eurostat explains that in 2019, the EU imported 26.9% of its crude oil, 46.7% of its solid fuel and 41.1% of its natural gas from Russia.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the EU has actually increased imports of natural gas from Russia over the past decade, from 25% in 2009 to 32% in 2021.

The energy security risks associated with importing fossil fuels at the rate the EU does have long been a topic of discussion. “While the current EU energy policy is forward thinking in its targets for renewable energy, economizing, and emission reduction,” said Richard Anderson in a 2008 report for the Marshall Center, “it falls short in its failure to recognize the security threat of the increasing dependence on Russian hydrocarbons—in particular, natural gas.”

Eurostat echoes these concerns. “The stability of the EU’s energy supply may be threatened,” they state, “if a high proportion of imports are concentrated among relatively few external partners.” That threat is something Europe is now trying to navigate.

For the EU, as for so many places, energy security is inherently tied not just to reducing fossil fuel use but to shifting away from fossil fuels altogether. That shift is underway under the auspices of the European Green Deal, but energy independence is a long way off.

The European Green Deal

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The European Green Deal is the EU’s agreement to become climate neutral by 2050, which would make Europe the first climate-neutral continent. The massive agreement requires an overhaul of virtually every economic sector, including building, transportation, energy and agriculture, as well as ambitious efforts towards conserving biodiversity, building a circular economy and decoupling economic growth from resource use.

A key piece of the deal’s legislation, the European Climate Law, enshrines the 2050 objective and calls for the reduction of GHG emissions by at least 55% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030. And a key strategy for reaching that goal is the development of renewable energy projects.

Renewable Energy in Europe

In terms of renewables, things are changing for the better. Climate think-tank Ember, in conjunction with Agora Energiewende, reports that in 2020, renewable energy sources outpaced fossil fuels for the first time in the EU. While renewable energy “rose to generate 38% of Europe’s electricity,” fossil fuel energy generation dropped to 37%.

Ember explains that wind-generated electricity has gone from making up 9% of Europe’s electricity in 2015, to 14% in 2020. Solar increased from 3% to 5% in the same period.

This differs quite a bit from country to country, as you might imagine. Ember’s data on the EU power sector in 2020 gives a wide-ranging picture. Wind and solar generate 62% of Denmark’s electricity. Austria gets 79% of its power from renewables and 21% from fossil fuels. France uses fossil fuels for only 9% of its energy, while 23% comes from renewables and 67% is generated from nuclear power. Renewable energy in Poland, on the other hand, accounts for only 17% of its energy, with 83% coming from fossil fuels.

Despite the upswing in renewable energy production, which Ember states made electricity generation in the EU “29% cleaner” in 2020 than it was in 2015, they argue it’s likely still not enough to fulfill the EU’s climate ambitions.

Their concern that Europe needs to do more to reach their targets is part of a larger call to get the bloc off of fossil fuels faster, a drive that now has acute political importance.

Speeding Up the Shift from Fossil Fuels

Accelerating the energy transition is, of course, a massive undertaking. In the wake of the Russian invasion, the IEA published a 10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union’s Reliance on Russian Natural Gas. The plan outlines 10 measures designed to “reduce reliance on Russian gas, while enhancing the near-term resilience of the EU gas network and minimising the hardships for vulnerable consumers.”

The plan is wide ranging, offering recommendations for maximizing existing low-carbon energy sources, reducing energy use and transforming the energy sector. The IEA notes that its most ambitious measures, such as diversifying Europe’s suppliers of natural gas and speeding up new utility-scale wind and solar projects will require “a concerted and sustained policy effort across multiple sectors, alongside strong international dialogue on energy markets and security.”

The recommendations in the report are in line with the European Commission’s upcoming proposals to reduce reliance on Russian gas, scheduled to be released mid-March of 2022. Kate Abnett tells Reuters that the draft proposal also includes measures related to diversifying gas suppliers and accelerating renewable energy projects.

The complexity and the sheer scope of these strategies might make it seem like the issues are too big for there to be a way for individual people to help. While the most impactful proposed measures in the IEA and the EC’s plans have to do with international capacity building, however, they also speak to things individuals can do.

How Can Individual Homes Become Less Dependent on Fossil Fuels?

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On an individual level, the IEA suggests that even if energy consumers lowered their thermostats by1°C, they could collectively lower the demand for Russian gas by 10 bcm (billion cubic metres) per year.

Improving energy efficiency in the EU’s building stock makes the IEA’s list of recommendations, as well. They estimate that accelerating efficiency retrofits by providing incentives for upgrades like insulation and smart thermostats would reduce reliance on imported fuels by more than 1 bcm a year.

Convert Boilers

Homeowners may be interested in taking an even more hands-on approach to making their own homes less reliant on fossil fuels, however. And since heating accounts for the largest percentage of fuel use in a home, addressing home heating is a logical way to start decarbonizing. Here are a few options.

  • Replacing gas boilers with electric or biomass boilers could be a cost-effective option, depending on where a homeowner lives.
  • Pellet stoves can be highly efficient, though they do use electricity.
  • Wood stoves are also good alternatives – especially new models that cut down on polluting emissions.
  • Air-source heat pumps are another common replacement, one that also provides homeowners with air conditioning, which could well justify the extra cost associated with them.

Whether an electric alternative makes sense in this context depends on how a home’s electricity is generated. If a home is in a region where electricity is powered by hydro or wind, converting a boiler could lower fossil fuel use quite a bit. If the electricity is generated at a gas power plant, electrification wouldn’t get you further ahead.

Consider Geothermal

For some homeowners, a ground source, or geothermal, heat pump might be a more straightforward way to reduce their reliance on gas heating. While many European homes don’t sit on properties that would be large enough or accessible enough for a geothermal system, for those who do, geothermal provides a reliable source of heating that’s as local as you can get.

Geothermal energy hasn’t seen the kind of rapid growth that have characterized wind and solar, which suggests that this might be a costlier option. The European Geothermal Energy Council (EGEC) argues that “geothermal energy needs supportive policies, a fair competition with carbon pricing and ending of fossil fuel subsidies, a smooth licensing and permitting framework, and investments in innovation to play what can be a decisive role in energy transition.”

Despite what they see as some setbacks in terms of policies and, of course, pandemic-related slow-downs, EGEC remains positive that the market will expand, which means that if you were interested in this technology, it could be expected to come down in price in the future.

Take Advantage of the Dropping Costs of Solar Panels

Abnett states that the upcoming EC recommendations include expanding solar “rooftop panels for houses”—something the IEA’s plan recommends, as well. Rooftop panels can be a simple and functional way to generate renewable energy, especially for those living in cities.

Although the price of solar PV panels has dropped sharply over the past decade, and although solar systems tend to have a reasonable payback period, they still require a big up-front investment.

But Emiliano Bellini tells PV Magazine that a new agreement on a proposal from the European Council would see VAT on solar panels capped at 5% in member countries and possibly even eliminated. Bellini reports that the tax reduction applies not just to solar equipment but to installation, as well, which should put solar technology more within reach for more people.

Start or Join a Renewable Energy Community

Under the Clean Energy Package (CEP), the Green Deal includes legislation and directives around citizen energy communities and renewable energy communities. The directives are designed to encourage citizens to actively participate in renewable energy markets, “either by generating, consuming, sharing or selling electricity, or by providing flexibility services through demand-response and storage.”

Paul Hockenos of Yale’s E360 writes that community energy co-ops have an integral role to play in the European energy transition, despite big multi-national companies delivering much of the renewable energy required for the EU to meet its carbon-neutral ambitions.

Hockenos traces the gradual displacement of renewable energy communities by commercial developers with deeper pockets to maintain infrastructure and expand distribution. Weakening national programs incentivizing local renewable energy schemes have also contributed to a decrease in new energy co-ops, he says.

He argues that community renewable energy projects keep “profit, tax revenue, and job creation” in local hands, contributing more to regional income than commercial projects do and saving communities money on utilities.

This alone makes them worth continued investment, but their contribution to the democratization of energy and to citizen ownership of energy supplies seem especially empowering.

And the more people feel like they have a stake in where their energy comes from, the more invested they’ll be in the future that energy enables. In Europe and anywhere in the world.

Feature image: Pixabay; Image 1: Pixabay; Image 2: Pixabay

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