Energy & Environment

Europe’s Energy Crack-Up

A wind turbine in western France (Reuters photo: Stephane Mahe)
Europeans scold while the U.S. leads

‘Drugs, human trafficking, weapons. Violent fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism.” Was this President Trump talking about Africa at his recent White House meeting with congressional leaders? Nope: “The problems Africa face are completely different . . . and are civilizational,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron told a reporter from the Ivory Coast at last year’s G20 summit. European leaders like to lecture the world on how to be virtuous, but when you look at what they do themselves, a different story emerges.

Nowhere is the contrast starker than in climate and energy policy. The European Union has set out to show the world how it can be saved from climate change. No country has been more prominent in this than Germany. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Germany reneged on a deal with President George H. W. Bush by advocating targets and timetables for emissions cuts that they had agreed wouldn’t be in the United Nations climate-change convention. Germany pledged to cut its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 to 30 per cent by 2005 and subsequently set a 40 percent target to be reached by 2020.

Thanks to German reunification, the first 20 percent was achieved by closing down the former East Germany’s heavy industry and its most polluting power stations. With emissions on course for only a 30 percent cut by 2020, three months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to explain that it was always clear that it would not be easy to save another 20 percent “at a time of relatively strong economic development.” The more you grow, the more carbon dioxide you produce. Logically, then, decarbonization policies mean lower growth. The elixir of carbon-free growth turns out to be snake oil after all.

Then two weeks ago, in the protracted talks to form a new governing coalition, Germany’s largest parties dropped the 2020 goal. An internal staff paper for environment-ministry bureaucrats acknowledged that missing the 2020 target would be a “disaster for Germany’s international reputation as a climate leader.” Indeed, 2017 was the year when Germany’s much vaunted Energiewende — a blueprint for America’s energy future if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election — demonstrably failed. Despite fearsome energy-saving policies, energy consumption rose (economic growth, immigration, and cold weather were blamed), greenhouse-gas emissions were flat, and retail electricity prices were projected to rise above 30 euro cents (36.6 U.S. cents) for the first time (the average U.S. residential rate is around 13 U.S. cents).

The perverse effects of wind and solar were evidenced by increased volatility in wholesale electricity prices, with a record 146 hours with negative electricity prices — indicating that during these hours, electricity is less than worthless, as there’s insufficient demand to mop up unwanted wind and solar power. The extent to which the German public has been cowed by relentless renewables propaganda can be seen from an opinion survey that showed 75 percent agreeing that the Energiewende was a collective responsibility that everyone should help make succeed. But the same survey found that 68 percent of people were “very dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the way it had been implemented, only 15 percent were “somewhat satisfied,” and only 1 percent were “very satisfied.”

Europe’s energy policies are worse than stupid. At the end of last year, Sir John Beddington, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, lifted the lid on the scandal at the heart of the EU’s renewable policies. According to Sir John, since the EU’s first renewables directive in 2008, the growth of bioenergy — much of it sourced from North American woods and forests — has provided around half the expansion of renewable energy. To supply even one third of the additional renewable energy needed to meet Europe’s new 2030 target will require an amount of wood roughly equivalent to the combined harvest in the U.S. and Canada. The fiction currently being peddled is that Europe is only burning wood residues — the bits of trees left over from other uses — but new EU rules agreed to last week by the European Parliament will expand the definition of bioenergy to include trees specifically harvested to be burnt in power stations.

This, Sir John says, will result in higher emissions than from using natural gas or coal. Burning wood releases four times as much carbon dioxide per MWh of electricity as natural gas does, and over 50 percent more than coal. At the same time, cutting down trees reduces carbon sinks. Even so-called sustainable forestry practices incur “carbon debt,” with carbon paybacks running into decades and even centuries. EU policies, Sir John argues, gives a green light to developing countries for vastly greater forest removals, potentially risking “the incredibly valuable tropical forests that are not only valuable sources of biodiversity, but also form vast carbon sinks which are one of our best tools of defense against climate change.”

Whichever way you look at it, burning the world’s carbon sinks to meet the EU’s arbitrary renewable-energy targets is environmentally insane. Not only will the voracious appetite of Europe’s power stations for American timber threaten valued woodland habitats in forests across Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Virginia, it has damaging economic effects, as it pushes up the price of timber, with knock-on effects to the cost of building new homes. Without question, it is better for the environment to burn coal and plant trees than to cut down trees and burn them in power stations.

Since 2008, the growth of bioenergy — much of it sourced from North American woods and forests — has provided around half the expansion of renewable energy.

The practice also highlights Britain’s hypocrisy as a co-founder of the Powering Past Coal alliance. Britain’s war on coal and huge subsidies for bioenergy has led to the conversion of the Drax coal-fired power station, formerly Europe’s largest, to burning wood pellets imported from the U.S. Just this week, Drax announced it is going to convert its fourth boiler from coal to wood. “Powering past coal” turns out to mean replacing coal with wood, achieved by burning American trees.

Is this what greens want for developing nations? At last year’s Davos meeting, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina rounded on Al Gore when he criticized her government’s plans for a modern, low-emission coal plant. It’s no wonder that developing nations’ leaders are looking to the Trump administration for responsible energy-policy realism. The indications are that it will respond with a Clean Coal Alliance to push the technology and innovation agenda unveiled at last November’s Bonn climate conference.

This development couldn’t come too soon, as the West risks lagging behind the East in development of supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal technologies, which convert coal to electricity with great efficiency and lower emissions. Whereas the U.S. has one ultra-supercritical power station and 69 supercritical plants, according to an analysis last year by the Center for American Progress, of China’s 100 most efficient coal-fired power stations, 90 are ultra-supercritical. Nonetheless, the U.S. still has a technological lead. “I think the U.S. labs produce the best research in the world,” David Mohler, an Obama-era official at the Department of Energy, told E&E News.

In his answer to the Ivory Coast journalist, President Macron spoke of the need for Africans to make a “successful demographic transition” from today, when African women are having seven or eight children. If they’re lucky, the Europeans will reward them with some solar power, which doesn’t keep the lights on after dark or keep refrigerators cool through the night. In effect, the French president’s message to Africans was: You can’t have a Marshall Plan for Africa until your women have fewer babies. By contrast, the U.S. wants to extend the health, hygiene and civilizing benefits of cheap, reliable grid-delivered energy — the defining technology that brought the West into the 20th century.


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