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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9 years ago

Germany should be leaping at this opportunity.  Using electric resistance heat as a dump load to offset gas-fired heat is dirt cheap; you can buy a brand-new 5 kW heating element for about $20-25.  Adding enough extra dump-load capacity to absorb spikes in wind generation would be neither difficult nor expensive, and nuclear could supply carbon-free electricity available all night every night.

So obvious, yet not done.  Something is rotten in Denmark… oh, right, the wind-heavy Danes aren’t doing this either!

Dino Rosati
9 years ago

As David MacKay pointed out in his great “Sustainable Energy” book, using heat pumps to electrify space heating would be perfect for Ontario with its low carbon electricity. We are also blessed with convientely located gigantic bodies of water for heat sink/source to lower delta T. Much more efficient than directly converting electricity to heat.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dino Rosati

Unless you’re sited directly on one of those bodies of water, they’re not terribly good sources of heat (or sinks either).  Groundwater is warmer in winter anyway.

The issues with heat pumps are that they’re (a) expensive and (b) can’t run on anything except electricity.  The expense limits the pace of retrofits, and dependency requires sufficient supply before switchover is feasible.  The opposite tack is worth considering.  A $100 dump-load heater kit sited in a furnace duct and running in DSM mode could replace fossil combustion directly with resistance heat whenever excess power was available.  This would allow nuclear base-load capacity to be built out at whatever pace was feasible, and run at maximum for the entire heating season with all power productively used (if not all at the best efficiency).  As other loads like EV chargers came along, they’d take DSM priority ahead of the resistance heaters but behind heat pumps.  So long as you needed fossil fuels above a certain level for peaking generation and extreme cold periods, you’d just keep building out nuclear generation to displace it.

Morgan Brown
9 years ago

On a vacation to the UK in 2003, we stayed at a farm bed and breakfast in the Midlands. They had an electric storage heater in the main living room; the heater was warmed up at night, when the electrical price was low. Then, during the day you could open vents to allow the heat to dissipate by natural circulation. Very cozy.

Could not such a very simple system be used to store energy when the supply is high and the price low? With today’s smart meters, and smart grids, perhaps such heaters could be used and controlled by grid managers to increase electrical demand when supply increased due the intermittent supply (i.e., wind or solar generation). It’s not an ideal situation, but better than exporting electricity at less than it costs to generate and transmit. Maybe in summer, excess generation could be used to run ice systems, to freeze and store blocks of ice for use in cooling.

9 years ago
Reply to  Morgan Brown

You certainly can do that.  You can buy ice-storage systems for air conditioning today (one brand is “Ice Bear”).

These systems do not have to be complicated or expensive.  There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, just waiting for cheap baseload power to make it worth grabbing.

Robert Budd
9 years ago
Reply to  Morgan Brown

Summerside PEI has a growing program to install electric resistance heaters with ceramic storage for a dump load for their “peaky” wind capacity.
Not sure how the economic equation works out as far as cost and true energy benefit but people seem to be uptaking on the program.
The biggest change on the island seems to be the increased use of air to air heatpumps. People seem to finding a cost saving, but it’s putting a strain on the grid at peak heating times like in Jan. when demand peaked at around 5pm while wind capacity had gone flat. The grid actually went down in some areas when a backup generator failed to start.

9 years ago

Steve – the big hurdle in your plan would be the burden on consumers. Under the current model, electric space heating would be frightfully expensive since German household consumers pay about 38 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity.

That equates to $3,800 per 1000 cubic meters of natural gas or $111 per MMBTU. I’m not sure what the retail price is for natural gas, but I assume it is lower than that since the wholesale price in Europe is about 1/10th of those prices.