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Speeding up history in the face of war: How the invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the EU’s energy transition plan

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the significance of energy policy as a major power issue. It is an opportunity to break toxic dependence in geostrategic and climate terms.

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In its latest report, the International Energy Agency shows that the geopolitical context since the war in Ukraine has had an unprecedented impact on the energy transition. While a number of changes had already been initiated, such as those concerning renewable energies, the war in Ukraine seems to have accelerated them. In addition, European sanctions have massively reduced Russian gas imports into Europe. Under European sanctions, Russia reduced the flow of its gas pipelines to the EU by around 80%, prompting European states to find alternatives in a short space of time. This episode was an opportunity for many member states to reflect on their energy policy and, above all, the energy transition. 

The war in Ukraine revealed that energy policy is a major power issue. This is illustrated by the expression “war ecology” defined by Pierre Charbonnier. According to him, the war in Ukraine is an opportunity to break a toxic dependence, both in geostrategic terms and in terms of climate policy. Achieving energy sufficiency would kill two birds with one stone, by aligning the imperative of coercing the Russian regime with the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, “the period 2020-2021 was marked by a radical shift in the balance of competitiveness between renewables and existing fossil fuel and nuclear energy options”. So let’s take a look at how the war in Ukraine has affected the energy transition – has it accelerated or slowed it down?

What responses has the EU put in place? 

First of all, there is a desire at the European level to promote the EU’s independence, while also attempting to take account of the climate objectives set out in the European Green Deal.

This is illustrated first and foremost by the introduction of the RePower EU plan. What does this plan consist of? This plan, proposed by the EU a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in line with the demands of the 27 member states, aims to massively reduce Russian gas imports, to do without them altogether by 2027. This strategy is based on four pillars: saving energy, replacing Russian fossil fuels with other hydrocarbons, promoting renewable energies and investing in new infrastructures such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals.

We can therefore see that the EU Commission, while wishing to reduce member states’ dependence on Russia, also aims to achieve the Green Deal’s climate objectives. The strategic objective is linked to the climate objective. Through this plan, it is proposing to increase the EU’s renewable energy target from 40% to a minimum of 42.5% by 2030. To reach this objective, at the end of the year, the EU adopted a regulation aimed at speeding up the procedure for granting construction permits for renewable energy projects. 

Through the RePower EU plan, the EU has also decided to bet on hydrogen, setting a target of 10 million tonnes of domestic production of renewable hydrogen and a similar figure for imports by 2030. The creation of a European Hydrogen Bank is also planned, with the task of investing 3 billion Euros to develop this market on the continent, as announced by Ursula Von Der Leyen during her State of the Union address last September.

Are there any concrete examples of the successful implementation of this plan?

Yes, especially when it comes to the development of renewable energies. After the war, the use of renewable energies rose sharply. Between 2022 and 2023, European renewable energies increased by 57.3 GW. This figure is set to rise further, given that the RED III directive, the result of the RePower EU plan, calls for doubling the share of renewable energies in European energy consumption to 42.5% by 2030. This increase in investment in renewable energies has helped bring prices down. However, their role in heating, and especially in transport, is still limited, although growing.

It’s worth noting that this increase in investment in renewable energies has not been confined to Europe alone, as it is China that has increased its renewable energy production capacity the most (+ 141GW)

What initiatives have been put in place at national levels?

Many member states have also taken steps to reduce their dependence on Russian gas imports. In 2022, for example, Lithuania declared its autonomy from the gas pipeline linking it to Russia, thanks to its LNG terminal and links with its neighbours. Shortly afterwards, Poland was able to put the suspension of Gazprom supplies into perspective, thanks to its LNG terminal and cross-border gas pipelines. Co-financed by the EU, the various cross-border gas pipelines have proved invaluable in times of crisis, embodying the principle of solidarity proclaimed in the Treaty of the European Union.  In coastal areas, LNG terminals, previously under-utilized, have made it possible to diversify supplies, even if technical constraints remain between certain member states. 

States have also sought to find other countries that can provide them with energy. So there has been a revival of confidence in nuclear power throughout the EU. Italy and Germany have also sought to establish or renew bilateral partnerships. However, the diversity of national energy mixes and the differing levels of vulnerability between member states could well lead to a situation where each country is left to its own devices.

Finally, the war in Ukraine was also an opportunity for many states to review their position on nuclear energy, as was the case with Germany. 

Can the EU afford the energy ambitions proposed in its RePower EU plan? 

The plan will cost 210 billion euros, and major investments are needed. That’s why InvestEU, the EU’s flagship investment program, was created. Its original aim was to finance a green and digital revival, but with the crisis in Ukraine, the plan is now part of Europe’s drive for emancipation from Russian oil and gas. At present, the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels costs 100 billion euros a year. To free itself from this, an investment of 210 billion euros is required by 2027. However, the EU has already far exceeded 210 billion euros: the 27 countries have spent a combined total of 314 billion euros, bringing the EU’s bill to almost 450 billion euros.

Will Europe emerge stronger from the energy crisis? 

While the oil shocks saw European states reacting in a scattered fashion (not necessarily contradictorily, incidentally), the gas crisis provoked by Russia has confirmed the timeliness and effectiveness of a European approach. This energy crisis has made European countries realise the strategic importance of energy supply and has been the starting point for in-depth reflection on the importance of ensuring their independence.

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Speeding up history in the face of war: How the invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the EU’s energy transition plan

The EneRail | Podcast

How is our generation responding to the challenges posed by the energy crisis and the imperative for a green transition?

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The Enerail podcast takes us on a captivating virtual journey across the European Union, examining the energy and climate crisis from different perspectives. In a world where the term “we” can be complex and multifaceted, this immersive podcast introduces us to a diverse range of individuals living through this crisis.

Activists, researchers, and institutional youth representatives are just a few of the voices we encounter along the way. As we delve into the heart of this pressing issue, one burning question guides our exploration: How is our generation responding to the challenges posed by the energy crisis and the imperative for a green transition? This thought-provoking podcast provides a comprehensive and nuanced outlook on the realities, insights, and actions that are shaping our present and future.

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Green Hydrogen=Green Flag

Overcoming the limits of batteries with hydrogen energy storage

In this article, we will delve into the exciting world of hydrogen as a potential solution for energy storage, aiming to overcome the current limitations of Lithium Ion Batteries (LIB).

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The importance of effective storage systems in the transition to renewable energy

A future powered by renewables needs effective storage systems. Unlike fossil fuels, wind and sunlight, two low-carbon energy sources at the centre of the energy transition, have some great limitations: they are intermittent and cannot be stored to be converted into energy later on. A turbine spins only where and when the wind blows, and a solar panel works only under daylight. Learning to work around those limitations can help us abandon fossil fuels faster, which is crucial, given the short time we have left to meet the Paris carbon emission reduction targets. Storage systems can help us overcome these limitations, by offering alternative ways to even out energy supply to the grid and by allowing the electrification of sectors that are not connected to the grid altogether.

In this article, I want to look at one of those systems: hydrogen. More specifically, I want to explore how we can store energy using this material, and see in what ways it can help us overcome some of the limitations of the more commonly used Lithium Ion Batteries (LIB). To do so, I will provide you with an accessible explanation of how hydrogen energy storage works. I will also show that LIBs have three main downsides that hydrogen storage can help mitigate: high impact of raw materials, low gravimetric energy density and limited long-term and high-capacity storage capabilities.

My goal here is not to advocate for the complete abandoning of LIBs, rather, I want to show how in some cases having an alternative can help us achieve the decarbonization of our economy faster.

How can electricity be stored in hydrogen?

Let’s start with the basics. How do you generate electricity with hydrogen? It’s pretty simple. Hydrogen atoms flow through a “fuel cell”, which splits their electrons from their protons and nucleus. The electrons then leave the fuel cell and run through a circuit, powering whatever device they are connected to. The end of the circuit is connected back to the fuel cell, where the electron re-joins the proton and nucleus from which it was split. The hydrogen cell is thus re-formed and, reacting with oxygen in the air, it transforms into water vapour. Of course, this is an oversimplification, for a more accurate, but still very accessible, explanation of the process, I redirect you to this video from Alex Dainis, PhD. Just to be clear, this is not a nuclear reaction, as we are not splitting the nucleus itself.

The next question is where do we get hydrogen from? Due to its highly reactive nature, hydrogen is often bonded to other materials. Thus, we need to extract it from other molecules before we can convert it into energy. There are different ways you can do this. The key things to keep in mind are two. Firstly, these processes take a lot of energy. Secondly, the energy source you use determines the name we give to the final product, together with its carbon footprint. Some examples of carbon-intensive production methods are steam methane reforming and gasification. The output of these processes will be called grey or blue hydrogen (in the second case, a carbon capture mechanism is used to limit emissions).

Another method to produce hydrogen is electrolysis. With the same fuel cell we mentioned before, you can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, through a process that is exactly symmetrical to what we have described two paragraphs above. To do this, you need electricity. If that is produced from renewable sources you have green hydrogen, which is low carbon.

Now, the round-trip efficiency of green hydrogen is less than one, meaning that the energy you get from it is less than the one you used to produce it. This means that, whenever possible, it is more efficient to use a renewable energy source directly, without hydrogen as an intermediary. Whenever that is not possible, however, one can produce hydrogen as a way to store and transport energy. First, clean electricity is used to perform electrolysis. Then the resulting hydrogen is reconverted back into water when and where electricity is needed. Through this process, hydrogen can be used as a stock of electricity that can be displaced in space and time to better match our energy demands.

Obstacles to decarbonizing the economy using batteries

As you know, batteries can also be used to store and transport energy. Some of their limitations, however, pose important obstacles to our ability to fully decarbonize our economy. Hydrogen can help us overcome those obstacles.

High impact of raw materials

Firstly, the raw materials required to manufacture LIBs pose environmental, social and geopolitical challenges that become more and more pressing as the scale of production of this technology increases. Lithium and cobalt are two materials used in LIBs. Lithium mining, on the one hand, has a water footprint of more than 2000 liters per kilogram extracted. The practice has also been linked with “declining vegetation, hotter daytime temperatures and increasing drought conditions in national reserve areas”. Cobalt mines, on the other hand, are notoriously infamous for the terrible working conditions of their workers. At the same time, both materials are to be found in only a couple of regions throughout the world. This creates perverse incentives to adopt hoarding strategies, which artificially push up the price of these resources. Such a high level of concentration also decreases the resilience of the supply chain to unforeseeable external shocks, decreasing the long-term reliability of the industry as a whole.

Hydrogen, like lithium, can be used to store energy, however, unlike lithium, it is not a rare material and can be extracted with carbon-neutral technologies. Consequently, replacing some of the current and future demand for batteries with hydrogen-based solutions can reduce our consumption of these materials, and with that the challenges that they come with. This can also diversify the energy storage supply chain, increasing its ability to withstand exogenous shocks. Hydrogen systems also do not use cobalt.

Of course, this is only a part of the solution, the issues I have highlighted above need to be addressed independently of the fact that we introduce hydrogen in the equation. Nonetheless, this technology can help us reduce the scale of the problem. With this, it should also be noted that, while hydrogen is not a rare material, iridium and platinum (two materials often used in fuel cells) are. These materials come with their own environmental problems, which further proves that technical diversification is only part of the solution. The social and environmental patterns of exploitation behind mining need to be addressed, regardless. That, however, is a broader conversation that pertains to our economy as a whole.

Low gravimetric energy density 

Secondly, the low energy density of LIB makes them unsuitable as an alternative to fossil fuels in some applications. The aviation industry is an example of this issue. The table below shows the energy density of different materials, i.e., the amount of Megajoules stored in one kilogram of material ( = gravimetric density) and the amount of Megajoules in one litre of material ( = volumetric density).

Material Gravimetric energy density* Volumetric energy density Energy efficiency
Jet A1 (kerosene)
43.3 MJ/Kg
Hydrogen
142 MJ/Kg
LIBs
0.5 MJ/Kg

As you can see, compared to Jet A-1 (a common aviation fuel), a LIB providing the same amount of energy as an airplane’s fuel tank would be 86 times as heavy. Emily Pickrell, Energy Scholar at the University of Houston estimates that “if a jumbo jet were to use today’s batteries, 1.2 million pounds of batteries would be required just to generate the power of the jet engine it would be replacing. This weight would effectively need an additional eight jet planes just to carry that weight!”.

Consequently, replacing jet fuel with an equivalently powerful battery would make the plane too heavy to fly. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is more energy-dense than both LIBs and Jet A-1. Thus, it can provide the same amount of energy at a much lower weight.

Hydrogen’s energy density makes it a much better match for the electrification of the aviation industry than batteries. There are, however, some limitations to the potential of this gas. If we look at its volumetric energy density, a hydrogen tank would take 4 times as much space as a Jet A-1 providing equivalent energy. And this is assuming we are able to keep the gas in its liquid form at -252.8°C. Together with this, to this day the round-trip efficiency of hydrogen systems is still much lower than that of batteries. Finally, hydrogen aircraft are still in the early stages of development, meaning that we still need to wait for the large-scale commercial adoption of these vehicles.

Limited long-term and high-capacity storage capabilities

Finally, LIBs are less efficient at storing higher quantities of energy for longer periods of time than hydrogen systems. In some applications, we need this longer-term storage capacity. One case is that of intermittent energy storage.

As I said before, renewables’ energy supply cannot be adjusted to the specific demands of consumers and producers at any given moment. To address this, storage devices allow us to stock up energy in moments of excess supply, in order to release it back into the grid in periods of excess demand. Intermittency, however, is a multidimensional phenomenon that has a short-run and long-run component: fluctuations in supply can be intraday or seasonal. Looking at solar energy makes it easier to understand both. As the sun shines only during the daytime, at night panels will not produce any electricity. That is intra-day intermittency. At the same time, during summer days are longer, and, in many climates, less cloudy. Thus, output will be higher during June, July and August than it will during winter (as shown by the table below). This is what we call seasonality.

LIBs are more effective at smoothing intraday fluctuations. Battery storage facilities are cheaper to install, but more expensive to scale up, making them more suited for smaller capacity applications. Their higher round trip efficiency (look at the table above) also means that less energy is wasted in the process. Due to their higher rate of self-discharge, however, they cannot store electricity for prolonged periods of time, making them useless when it comes to seasonal intermittency. At the same time, hydrogen is better suited to supply that higher capacity, long term storage facility needed to smooth out seasonal fluctuations. On the one hand, hydrogen deposits show increasing returns to scale. They can be more costly than batteries to set up, but doubling capacity less than doubles the cost. This makes the technology better suited for higher capacity stockage. On the other, hydrogen has a lower rate of self-discharge, meaning that it can store energy for longer. These two characteristics make this technology a useful tool to smooth out seasonality, even when we account for its lower round trip efficiency (being able to store something is better than being able to store nothing).

To conclude, we can see that hydrogen can help overcome three important limitations of LIBs: high impact of raw materials, low gravimetric energy density and limited long-term and high-capacity storage capabilities. Nonetheless, the analysis also shows that hydrogen technology is still in its earlier stages of development. Consequently, important challenges need to be overcome before this technology can be deployed at scale. If used together, batteries and hydrogen will have a central role in facilitating the energy transition.


I would like to thank Tuur Knevels, who provided some crucial support in the drafting of this article. He is a passionate young engineer who has been active in the hydrogen and automotive industry for the past 3 years and is currently completing his degree in Aerospace Engineering whilst working as a freelance fuel cell systems engineer. We met back in July during the in-person training we organised as part of the AmPower Project. Of course, any potential incoherence in this analysis is solely attributable to me.


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Green Hydrogen=Green Flag

Green Colonialism

The large-scale deployment of solar and wind capacities, along with electric batteries, is particularly demanding in critical raw materials, most of which are currently imported.

Could this trend amount to a new form of colonialism?

Green Colonialism​

The large-scale deployment of solar and wind capacities, along with electric batteries, is particularly demanding in critical raw materials, most of which are currently imported. Could this trend amount to a new form of colonialism?

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    Monday 3rd July at 17h CEST

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In the third webinar of the AmPower series we explore the notion of “Green Colonialism”! What is that all about?

With each new legislative package adopted in the framework of the European Green Deal, the target of renewable energy deployment has increased. The current pledge is at 42,5% of the European overall Energy mix by 2030. But the large-scale deployment of solar and wind capacities, along with electric batteries, is particularly demanding in critical raw materials, most of which are currently imported from 3rd countries.

Could this trend amount to a new form of colonialism? Is the European Commission tackling this issue head-on with its proposal for a raw critical material act?

Speakers

Stephanie RichaniStephanie Richani is the advocacy lead at Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice. Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice is a people of colour-led initiative working to advance rights and justice for all people in Europe. We work in solidarity with a coalition of racial and social justice leaders and organisations to influence European Union law and policy.

Emily Iona StewartEmily Iona Stewart has a background in European labour law. Emily first began working on environment and climate issues a decade ago as the chief policy advisor to the Vice Chair of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee.

She has specialised in European climate and sustainability policy, playing a decisive role in forming the EU’s Sustainability strategy, which eventually led to the European Green Deal. Working across political lines, Emily has also authored legislation on supply chains, biofuels, and land rights. 

Emily is the Climate Advocacy Specialist for the Open Society Foundations Just Transition pillar. In this role, she helps form OSF strategy on European climate policy, as well as maintaining and influencing networks within the European policy landscape.

 

Have questions? Get in touch!

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Green Colonialism​ | Webinar

Liberalisation of the energy sector | Webinar Recap

Overview of the EU’s legislative system and the energy sector liberalisation

European Energy Sector
Learn about the positive and negative outcomes of the liberalisation process, and how energy communities could play a major role in the green transition.

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European Energy Sector
European Energy Sector
European Energy Sector
European Energy Sector

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Liberalisation of the energy sector

The liberalisation of the European energy sector was the continuation of the European Union’s effort to create a European single market.

The underlying idea is that the creation of an economic union would naturally bring European countries closer together leading to further political integration, thus guaranteeing peaceful inter-state relations.

The main purpose of the liberalisation process was to organise the provision of electricity and gas more efficiently by introducing competitive forces where possible and regulation where needed.

Main barrier to the liberalisation of the energy sector

Up until the 90’s the energy sector was structured around national monopolies preventing any kind of competition to emerge.

A major step in this process was thus to break down national monopolies or what is referred to as “unbundling”.

The first “unbundling” obligations appeared with the 1st energy package (1996-98) and required the separation of generation, transmission, distribution, and retail activities.

Secondly, to increase cross-border exchanges the EU massively invested in interconnections. The European interconnected grid is now the largest in the world with 400 interconnectors (cross border pipeline and electric cables) linking 600 million citizens.

What are the results of this process?

Positive aspects
Negative aspects

What are Energy Communities (or energy cooperative)?

Legal entities of citizens getting together around an energy transition project.

They run around 7 main principles :

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training and information
  6. Cooperation among cooperatives
  7. Concern for Community

Why are they so relevant to the energy transition?

It is estimated that half of the European citizens could produce their own electricity, covering about 45 % of the overall electricity demand.

89 % of the population could get involved in some energy system activity (for instance with the spreading of electric cars, households could offer energy storage services. Modern appliances like smart metres, remote control thermostats, electric vehicles etc. can offer demand response services*)

Energy cooperatives can get involved in a wide range of activities such as

Production • Supply • Distribution • Flexibility •Storage • Demand response •Energy monitoring •District heating • Transportation – E-car sharing • Energy savings – Collective home retrofits

*demand response: increased flexibility from the demand side to adapt consumption to the available generation.
On top of the technical advantages that the multiplication of energy communities could bring, these structures also fulfil a major social element of the green transition: Citizen engagement. The green transition is not only about switching from dirty to clean energy sources it is rethinking our entire economy and our consumption pattern. By giving the opportunity to our citizens to get directly involved in the energy chain, we create a population more aware of its own consumption and conscient of the behavioral changes needed to achieve our ambitious climate targets.

Major barriers to the creation of energy communities:

  •  • Access to funding
  •  • Lack of upfront investments and specific skills: Volunteer-based & lack financial skills. More risk aversion.
  •  • Lack of knowledge from financing institutions: banks don’t recognize the new and innovative business models of energy communities
  •  • Lack of streamlined/stable Government financing mechanisms: public finance can de-risk and mobilise further community & private capital

Want to learn more?

Watch this video explanation of the virtue of energy communities

 

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