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Energy and Our World

Ukraine Energy Warning Provides Preview Of Upcoming Winter

This article originally ran on Forbes.com on October 27, 2022. All rights reserved.

Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.

Ukraine’s national energy company warned its citizens on October 20 that they should “charge everything” because of expected power cuts due to Russian missile strikes.  Stymied in his attempts to conquer Ukraine militarily, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun an artillery assault on Ukrainian infrastructure.   According to Ukraine’s energy ministry, the Russian attacks, which violate international law, have damaged as much as 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.  Citizens have been advised that phones, power banks, torches, and batteries all should be charged, as Ukraine likely will be dealing with power outages of up to four hours daily across the country.

Ukraine is not the only country in Europe preparing for power blackouts this winter.  The National Grid in Great Britain warned that blackouts could be ordered between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm on “really, really cold” weekdays this winter if gas imports from Europe are reduced.  

Recent reports claim that the British Broadcasting Company has prepared secret scripts of how it will reassure the nation should Great Britain face a “major loss of power.”  Meanwhile, German politician Wolfgang Schauble told his countrymen to prepare to wear two sweaters and to stop whining about the power situation as there might be cuts in Germany as well this winter.  And even here in the United States, ISO New England Inc., the operator of the northeastern power grid, has warned about possible energy blackouts this winter.

It is lost on no one that “really, really cold” days are the exact days when people need power the most.  Nor can it be disputed that the possibility of energy blackouts and freezing children anywhere that does not agree with Russia’s war mongering is one of the strategic goals of Vladimir Putin as he tries to find some way to salvage his Ukrainian misadventure after conventional warfare has not worked as initially planned.  In a very real sense, then, it can be argued that the West’s present energy vulnerability is a contributing factor behind the continued war, death, and destruction in Ukraine.  Causation having thus been determined, at least in part, the question now becomes what do we do about it?

Europe has begun answering this question – or at least trying to answer it – by reversing decades of programs that (we can now see) prematurely forced out nuclear, oil, and gas power due to environmental considerations.  Out of sheer desperation, countries like Germany have even restarted old coal-fired power plants and made other moves to obtain energy regardless of the environmental concerns. However, this is not universally popular in Germany, which for decades has prided itself on being at the forefront of the transition to a cleaner world.  Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned last week that Russia’s war in Ukraine should not bring back a “worldwide renaissance” for coal. Scholz’s comments appear rather odd in context, though, considering his country is leading that renaissance, but it underscores the trepidation felt by many European politicians who are caught between the immediate need to keep their people warm and fed this winter and the more existential, and longer term, goal of still reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

The reason this anvil now exists, of course, is the shortsighted failure of Western elites to have allowed a frank and fulsome discussion on the benefits and limitations of renewable energy sources juxtaposed with the benefits and limitations of fossil fuels when there was time and opportunity to have that debate in the years and even decades before Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.  It is not as if the handwriting was not on the wall for all to see, considering that Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea took place in early 2014, and, in hindsight, that there were many signs of Putin’s likely intentions toward Ukraine much earlier than that.  Yet, many Western countries, Germany especially, chose to bury their heads in the sand and refused to recognize the interplay between their domestic energy policies and regional stability in Europe as a whole that, in hindsight, is now so apparent it is difficult to understand how it could have been missed.

Now that we can look back with 20/20 hindsight, policies such as Germany’s Energiewende may have worked reasonably well in the abstract, when Germany always had a failsafe and could import the natural gas and oil it needed to make up for the shortfall relating to renewable energy’s limitations.  However, inevitably, such policies fall flat when the abstract becomes reality and Germany’s backup plan – so heavily tied to the aggressor, Russia – has lost its reliability.

With the winter now fast approaching, Putin still fighting and killing innocent people in Ukraine, and the potential of energy shortages staring Western leaders in the face all over the globe and not just in Europe, it might not be long before leaders of other Western countries, including parts of the United States that are particularly vulnerable, like New England, start warning their citizens to “charge everything” as well.  It is truly a shame and an abject failure of policy and planning that it has taken reaching this point before we really start looking at the benefits and limitations of all energy sources, but here we are.

Yes, continued uncontrolled global warming due to climate change remains an existential issue deserving of the highest levels of our attention and action.  But try telling that to the parents of children in, say, Dusseldorf or even Boston, who may be literally freezing next February because our leaders have chosen to put all of their eggs prematurely in only one energy basket without adequately considering important related issues like assuring the availability of energy supply worldwide, not to mention the trickle down effects of what something like war in one country can cause world-wide in an integrated global economy.

Our leaders will do all of us a great service if they take this opportunity and the lessons to be learned from it to find the best way to muddle through now, while they honestly start engaging in creating a real long term energy plan, with all potential failures and contingencies fully considered, evaluated, planned for, and addressed.  It is time to start treating energy policy with the same degree of attention and seriousness that we devote to national defense, not one based on a wing and a prayer.

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