Russian gas vs. European electricity: will the Third Electrification win the sanctions war?

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” So, according to many, said Sigmund Freud. Let’s hope that the hurling of insults is the worst things get in the current tensions over Ukraine, Russia, and Crimea. And let’s hope that the most serious concrete policy moves are those involving energy, which Russia provides, mostly in the form of oil and gas, not only to Ukraine but to western Europe as well. If the disputants can confine their tit-for-tat to energy sanctions, then civilization will have prevailed.

And on energy sanctions: if the EU and its lead partner Germany really want to make Russia know that they are serious about economic sanctions for annexing Crimea, they would abandon their silly anti-nuclear domestic energy policies. Germany could, with a stroke of the pen, reduce its already significant dependence on Russian gas—gas-fired generators made 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in Germany 2012, according to the OECD Electricity Information 2013—and reverse the nuclear phaseout it implemented, under Green Party pressure, after the 2011 Japan meltdowns.

Germany could, with the stroke of a pen, begin to shift a significant proportion of its space heating, a big chunk of it from Russian gas, to electricity. Which Germany controls.

But gas is the main source of space heating in Germany, and Germany imports 86 percent of its gas, says a 2012 International Energy Agency report. According to the same report, thirty-nine percent of Germany’s imported gas comes from Russia.

Germany could, with the stroke of a pen, begin to shift a significant proportion of its space heating, a big chunk of it from Russian gas, to electricity. Which Germany controls.

But reversing the nuclear phaseout is key. For a major shift in space heating energy policy to jibe with Germany’s longstanding climate change goals (remember those?), it would have to result in heating kilowatt-hours that are much cleaner than those from the most efficient gas-fired furnaces. As things stand today, Germany’s electricity is dirty—unconscionably dirty for a country that has lectured the world for decades on the necessity of reducing carbon emissions.

So Germany would have to start getting serious about reducing its power-sector carbon emissions. So far it has talked the green talk louder than anyone else. It claims to have followed up that talk with action, in the form of building up the biggest wind turbine fleet in Europe. But Mother Nature cares not for such flatulent puffery. All Mother Nature knows is that German power plants continue, every single year, to dump hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into her atmosphere.

Only nuclear can stop that. And only Germany can reverse its silly nuclear phaseout.

If it did so, Germany would, in one fell swoop, send a strong signal to Russia that it is serious about sanctions over Crimea. An insult that Russia, once things have cooled down, will take as just part of the great energy game.

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