Panel of experts say more tough years ahead in global energy insecurity
By Louie Reckford (MSGA ‘23); photos by Laura Pennace
The 2022 energy crisis spurred by Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine is different from previous energy crises and is likely to have different long-term effects than previous oil-related crises, concluded a panel of four experts convened by the Energy, Climate Justice, and Sustainability Lab (ECJS) to mark the one year anniversary of the invasion at NYU’s School for Professional Studies. That’s because the context of the war and its disruption of supply chains differ from past oil crises like the 1973 oil embargo or Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Award-winning journalist Tatiana Serfin of Marymount University noted that the impact of and reaction to the war is different than past conflicts because social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram allow us to see how the war is affecting people on the front lines in real-time. Importantly, however, social media attention to the war is also creating opportunities for disinformation. Serafin pointed out that 141 nations backed a UN motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 23, 2023, that also called for the withdrawal of Russian forces and a cessation of hostilities, which puts to rest the Russian disinformation that countries from the global south support Russia’s invasion. Amy Jaffe, director of ECJS, who moderated the panel, recalled that the war also generated a narrative that the war would lead to a slowdown of the energy transition to low-carbon energy such as renewables. In reality, energy security concerns have actually prompted many countries to accelerate the transition to clean energy. Bryan Martin, a prominent US renewable energy developer and partner at investment firm D.E. Shaw, agreed, highlighting that the combination and policy and market fundamentals are making renewable energy projects more and more attractive, especially because coal-fired power plants are due for retirement at the same time that wind and solar are becoming cheaper to develop. High natural gas, he also observed, is encouraging more countries to consider energy sources that don’t have volatile fuel costs, like renewables.
Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Global Energy & Climate Innovation editor at The Economist, remarked that unlike past crises, the strategies of big oil majors for their massive profits suggest a possibility that this time might be different than past oil crises. Oil majors used their $200 billion in profits over the past year in three ways: shareholder buybacks (nothing new); investing in more oil and gas projects (but only certain kinds of projects that have shorter life cycles and quick paybacks); and investing in decarbonization and renewables (European oil companies more aggressively so than American oil majors). This suggests that the lasting legacy of the war might be to speed the energy transition by a decade, a notion that BP’s latest outlook supports.
Carolyn Kissane, Associate Dean and Clinical Professor, NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs, highlighted some of the reasons why the worst-case outcomes for the European winter have not come to pass that has meant Putin has not successfully weaponized energy like many predicted when the war first started. Heat pump installations, U.S. and Qatari LNG imports, Norwegian piped natural gas, and an unseasonably warm winter all contributed to this reality. There were also some notable policy reversals, she reminded the audience, like Germany’s cancellation of the Nordstream II pipeline and the decision to extend the life of nuclear plants and build new liquefied natural gas LNG receiving terminals. As the impact of China’s reversal of its COVID-zero policy becomes clearer, next winter could still be challenging as increased demand for natural gas could put pressure on prices, especially as the United States seeks to produce and export more.
Chiara Lo Prete, Associate Professor of Energy Economics at Penn State University, said where electricity is concerned, this war has demonstrated something new about the potential to weaponize electricity. After Ukraine’s attack on the Kerch Strait, Russia stepped up its attacks on the Ukrainian electricity grid. Over half of Ukraine’s electricity is supplied by 15 nuclear reactors in four locations, all of which require transformers to convert the high-voltage electricity to a lower voltage suitable for residential use. These transformers have been the target of Russian attacks. The bombing of the local Ukrainian transformer factory that produced the equipment has limited Ukraine’s ability to replace the transformers. Russia’s attacks highlight the vulnerabilities of the grid infrastructure supply chain.
Lo Prete further commented on the grid interconnections of Eastern Europe and how its interconnections with Russia are a remnant of the prior Soviet Era. These historical infrastructure connections leave these countries’ grids vulnerable to Russian interference. While Baltic states have tried to disentangle their grids from Russia’s, the technical process has further to go. Jaffe pointed out that Eastern Europeans are locking in U.S. nuclear technology as a way to hedge against reliance on Russian power generation. Poland is a prime example of this move.
Vaitheeswaran added how electricity has been and may continue to become politicized, while Martin lamented that supply chains for renewables are already subject to geopolitical maneuvering. Most polysilicon, a key input for solar panels, is manufactured in China, and U.S. presidential administrations going back to Obama have all imposed some sort of trade restrictions on solar panels from China. Some of this is to encourage domestic manufacturing, but some of the motivation is also caught up in the complex geopolitical dynamic between the United States and China over trade. US trade policy towards China has created challenges for solar project developers in the United States; Martin mentioned he hasn’t been able to deliver a project in 15 months due to supply chain issues.
Vaitheeswaran closed the event by noting that geopolitical uncertainty for energy security will not just disappear as countries shift more energy usage to renewables. Just as relying on fossil fuel imports can be destabilizing and politically risky, supply chain challenges can similarly imperil renewable energy projects and can cause disruptions, he noted. Moreover, the oil price cycle remains volatile. He reminded everyone that commodity prices go up and down and it’s never good to bet to rely on oil prices staying at $100.
Watch the video of the event here.