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Putin Sends Renewable Energy -- and Efficiency -- into Even Higher Gear

Froma Harrop on

Russia has many reasons to regret its savage war on Ukraine, but a very lasting one will be how it supercharged Europe's plans to end its dependence on that country's oil and gas. Europe was already well into a campaign to replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, mainly to slow climate change. The invasion and weaponization of Russian energy has shifted this move into even higher gear.

Amory Lovins, the scientist who helped found the Rocky Mountain Institute, has put these developments in dramatic language. "Putin," he told Le Monde, "has just exploded the era of fossil fuels."

It takes time, of course, to completely convert to renewables. The challenge of the moment for Europe is to get through the winter. Spiking prices and constrained supply require finding immediate ways to slash energy use.

What makes Lovins' approach so much in demand is his advocacy for energy efficiency as well as for renewables. The current crisis, he said, has unleashed a very rapid savings in energy consumption -- 10% to 20% in some countries.

"I was born in 1947, and what's happening now is the most fundamental change I've seen," he said.

There are the easy hacks to cut energy use. Heavy sweaters, nightcaps and cooking in microwaves (rather than ovens) for a start. Slovakia is telling people to limit showers to two minutes, and Finland is calling for group use of saunas. Those kinds of things.

Simone Tagliapietra of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels called the changes "remarkable." He predicted that "Europe will manage to completely decouple from Russia, something that was previously seen as impossible."

Before the war, Russia provided 45% of Europe's natural gas. That's now down to 10%.

This country saw bipartisan efforts to speed the move away from fossil fuels through a federal carbon tax. The point of a carbon tax is to raise the cost of emitting greenhouse gases, thus making clean energy more competitive and rewarding efficiency. Almost anything called a tax was destined to go nowhere, despite vows to return the collections to taxpayers.

 

But we now have a carbon tax, courtesy of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He's raised the price on carbon both in dollar terms and in threats to national security.

As Lovins sees it, "This war has put in place a global carbon tax far greater than what economists wanted to put in place in order to protect the climate."

However, this is not quite the tax that economists had envisioned. The proceeds are not being sent back to national governments. Putin is using them to finance his war. The downside for him is long-term: losing the biggest market for one of the few products Russia has to sell.

The high price of oil, meanwhile, is an obvious boon for renewables. And while clean energy can't replace fossil fuels just yet, it's well on its way to doing just that. Renewable sources are already able to cover the rising global demand for energy. Denmark, for one, meets 80% of its electricity needs from wind and solar.

And while today's quick energy savings may involve lowering the thermostat and wearing more layers, advances in technology promise a less compromising future. Motors, for example, now use more than half the world's electricity. A fix, Lovins says, could involve simply replacing their long, twisted pipes with large, short, straight pipes.

For Europe, especially, getting through winter may mean doing without. But new clean sources and greater efficiency in using energy could mean a guilt-free return to private sessions in the sauna. That's where we were headed anyway. Putin just pressed his foot on the accelerator.

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Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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