The president of the European Commission warned EU member states not to back down on long-term efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels, saying governments should remain firmly focused on “large-scale investment in renewable energy”.
Ursula von der Leyen spoke after Russia’s decision last week to cut pipeline supplies prompted Germany and Austria to increase coal use to protect natural gas inventories. Countries fear further supply cuts from Moscow and a possible energy supply crisis in winter.
The imminent increase in coal use, even temporarily, has raised concerns that many member states may use the crisis to delay switching to less polluting alternatives.
“We have to make sure we use this crisis to move forward and not let dirty fossil fuels go backwards,” she said in an interview. “It’s a good route, it’s not certain if we’ll turn right.”
The Netherlands has become the latest EU country to announce plans to temporarily increase coal use to ease gas shortages this winter. Climate and Energy Minister Rob Jetten said on Monday that the country will amend laws to require coal-fired power stations to operate at up to 35% capacity.
Germany and Austria announced on Sunday an emergency restart of mothballed coal-fired power plants after Russia cut the capacity of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline by 60% last week. The pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea to Germany, is one of the main routes for Russian gas into Europe, and officials fear Russia could cut supplies further ahead of winter.
Russia has blamed the capacity cuts on technical problems affecting the route, exacerbated by Western sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine. However, it has refused to make up the shortfall through other pipeline routes.
Other EU countries, including Italy, are expected to announce plans similar to Germany’s. European benchmark gas prices have risen more than 50% in the past week as member countries face mounting economic pressure due to energy shortages. Gas prices in the euro zone are at least six times higher than they were before the pandemic.
Von der Leyen said the EU had taken “urgent measures” to counter the threat of falling supplies from Russia, including energy-saving measures and “prioritizing” which sectors to accept gas. She particularly praised the German government’s proposal, saying energy conservation is one of the EU’s most effective tools at the moment.
Gas consumption in Europe has fallen by 9% in the first quarter compared with the same period a year earlier, figures cited by the chairman of the committee showed. Industry has been reducing consumption, in part because natural gas prices are near record levels. If consumers turned down their thermostats by 2 degrees Celsius, that could make a significant further difference in gas usage, she said.
The EU wants to speed up plans to increase electricity generation from renewable sources, while finding ways to diversify its gas supply, such as importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) seaborne cargoes from other regions.
Von der Leyen said the European Commission was doing everything possible to enable the EU in the future to say “We made the right choice. We are investing heavily in renewable energy.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February added fuel to a plan to rapidly expand renewable energy capacity, which was taking shape after the coronavirus pandemic peaked. Under the “RepowerEU” plan, the EU is not designed to reduce its reliance on Russian energy, diversify its sources of natural gas and expand wind and solar capacity.
Von der Leyen highlighted a recent trip to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the EU hopes to increase gas supplies from Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters, which could eventually provide Europe with additional LNG supplies.
She also said producers such as Norway and Azerbaijan were “stepping up” to increase production to provide the EU with an alternative to Russian gas supplies, which accounted for 40% of the EU’s total before the invasion.
But she said the most important pillars of the RepowerEU were to significantly increase investment in renewable energy as soon as possible and simplify planning regulations so that projects, including wind farms, could be built more quickly.
“We now know that they are not only good for our climate, but also for our energy security and independence.”