WW0 Investigates: Can Sustainable Bioenergy Loosen Putin's Gas Grip on Europe?

WW0 Investigates Europe's energy dependence on Russia

As Vladimir Putin and the West face-off over Russia's potential invasion of democratic Ukraine, energy geopolitics are on everyone's mind. Applying effective sanctions and other forms of pressure against Russia depends on solidarity between the United States and Europe. But also, Russia holds tremendous leverage over some European countries because it provides roughly 40% of Europe's natural gas supply. In Germany, this figure is greater than 50%. In several countries in Eastern Europe, 100% of natural gas supplies come from Russia.

The growing dependency on Russian gas comes at an especially unfortunate moment. As previously reported, Germany's decision over 20 years to phase out nuclear power, and more recent moves to cut reliance on coal in an effort to bring down CO2 emissions means the country has become more reliant on Russian gas than most of its neighbors -- not just for heating but also for power generation.

Are there ways to cut European dependency on Putin's gas? The US has scrambled to put more of its own supply on stand-by for Europe. But there are other tools to consider as well. Europe has counted on sustainably sourced bioenergy as an indispensable mitigation technology in making the EU's low-carbon energy transition a success. At COP26, Frans Timmermans, the European Commissions executive vice president, made clear that sustainable biomass is essential if the EU is to break its dependency on fossil fuels. Sustainable biomass for energy can be sourced in greater proportions within Europe, but also from the US, making Europe less dependent on Putin.

Looking forward, wind and solar will provide most of the capacity but biomass will be critical in providing energy security. Both in terms of releasing Europe from Russia’s grasp and when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesnt' shine -- biomass will provide vital renewable power and negative emissions from BECCS.

Bioenergy Europe: Bioenergy competitiveness, March 3, 2021.

Drax: What is BECCS? Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage animation, June 15, 2021.

In The Long Term

All of Europe may need to rethink its embrace of gas in its Green Deal approach, particularly when so much of it is controlled by an autocrat who sees it as a source of geopolitical leverage. Europe has seen natural gas as a bridge fuel to make a clean break from coal. But to the extent it means counting on Russia more, it would behoove the continent to think harder about investing more in sustainably sourced biomass, which has already helped Europe switch from coal, or rethink the continent’s decision in many places to move off of nuclear energy.

Bioenergy is the EU's largest source of renewable energy, accounting for almost 60% of total consumption, directly displacing coal while providing on-demand, renewable power that contributes to a massive expansion of intermittent wind and solar capacity. It also supplies commercial as well as domestic heat for over 50 million European households. Obviously, strict sustainability criteria for bioenergy is critical so the word "sustainable" means what it says.

Geopolitical Instability Could Pull Europe Off of Its Coal Goals

European advocates had rejoiced that they were "in the endgame for the coal industry in Europe," but thanks to Putin's implied threats, soaring European wholesale gas prices are encouraging more utilities to switch to carbon-heavy coal to generate electricity. It's an unfortunate choice for Europe to address an immediate threat by exacerbating the coming reality and threat of climate change. Finding solutions that can be grown, developed, and controlled is key. Sustainably-sourced bioenergy is one such solution -- it's currently available and should be further leveraged as a vital solution to mitigate climate change today and into the future.

Enviva: The Future of Fuel, Apr 19, 2021.