Only since the 1950s, energy consumption has increased fivefold, and the need continues to grow. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2022, it’s this: abundant energy at reasonable prices cannot be taken for granted.

Not in my backyard

With an energy crisis in Europe, as an effect of the war in Ukraine, the importance of power has never been more evident. But as new sources of energy emerge – old obstacles appear. Protests are stopping new projects.

Everything was different,” said my grandfather the last time we spoke. That was in the summer of 1999. Napster had just been launched and the war in Kosovo was coming to an end – as was my grandfather’s life. I was sitting by his bedside and had just asked him what the world was like for him as a child, living by a small fjord on the west coast of Norway almost 100 years ago. He paused for a moment, thinking. “We had no cars,” he said. “No planes, no TV. No radio, either.”

He didn’t mention the internet. He may have heard of it, but it never featured in his life, which might sound staggering to young people today. But then he said something even more staggering: “We didn’t even have electricity.”

Not in my backyard

Although wind energy may sound benign, the extent of human intervention involved is huge. A wind farm requires extensive land areas. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman.

Everything really was different before

I tried to imagine what life was like in those days, in a small, dimly lit house on a gravel road, with the ocean down below and the smell of dried fish, tar and sheep dung in the yard. It was hard enough for a city kid like me who grew up in the seventies, but probably impossible for my own children.

One thing the technological innovations my grandfather rattled off have in common is that they have all accelerated social development. They have revolutionised transport, information and communication, speeded up the pace of globalisation, and pushed the world forward from societies built on agriculture, hunting and fishing to ones built on knowledge, industry, technology, innovation and import and export.

But there’s something else they have in common: they need energy, and lots of it. Only since the 1950s, energy consumption has increased fivefold, and the need continues to grow. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2022, it’s this: abundant energy at reasonable prices cannot be taken for granted.

Energy in every drop

My home country of Norway has been blessed with a unique supply of energy for more than 100 years. At the beginning of the 1900s, someone realised they could derive lots of cheap electricity from the country’s thousands of waterfalls, and speculators with foreign backers travelled around the country buying up those waterfalls on a large scale. This was the backdrop for developing what became known as the “panic laws”, a set of new laws that gave the state control over the country’s natural resources.

Much later, at the end of the 1960s, oil and gas were discovered on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. Once again, the Norwegian state made some smart moves, and Norway gradually became self-sufficient and stinking rich on fossil and non-renewable energy. For my entire lifetime, Norway has enjoyed cheap energy, so cheap that my generation burn their feet on heated bathroom floors and leave all the houselights on when they go off on holiday. But now, in 2022, even the energy nation Norway is facing an energy crisis. Other nations have also prospered oil and gas, among them Russia.

Not in my backyard

The green energy technologies we hear about so much – wind, solar and wave – account for just over 2% of global energy production. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman.

Winter is coming

Over the past 50 years, Germany has made itself totally dependent on Russian gas. There’s been no lack of warnings; even president Trump warned against this dependence in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2018, only to be met with laughter from the German delegation.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove a huge wedge between Russian and Nato, it became clear that Vladimir Putin would leverage Europe’s dependence as part of his war strategy. By choking off energy supplies to Europe, he could try to pressure Western countries to lift sanctions against Russia. As an added bonus, he could expect divisions to arise among European politicians and capitalise on people’s fury at soaring electricity prices. He could destabilise and undermine his opponents.

Energy rationing

Towards the end of the summer of 2022, the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, which carries most of Russia’s gas to Europe, was shut down for a few days of maintenance. Germany responded by reactivating its environmentally unfriendly coal mines to make up for some of the supplies lost. But it wasn’t enough. The dry summer had made it difficult to ship coal by river transport. Similar problems arose in the United States and China. The industry was hit by energy rationing, and European leaders wearing solemn expressions warned of a cold winter ahead for most people.

Putin didn’t reopen the gas pipeline; he would rather burn it all up than export it to Europe. Then there were the explosions of the Nord Stream 1 pipelines, late September. They did not affect the amount of gas being delivered, and whether they are part of Putin’s strategic plan, remains to be seen. But they certainly made the geopolitical tension grow even more.

Norway – the largest supplier

At this time, Norway was all of a sudden the largest supplier of gas to the European continent. If the underwater pipelines from Norway to the continent would blow up too, that would mean a cold and dark winter in Europe. On the verge of winter 2022, Russian citizens are being arrested along the Norwegian coast, flying drones with high-tech cameras over critical infrastructure.

Again, we do not know if this is organized espionage. But it sure illustrates the tense situation. Even with increased energy supplies from Norway, energy rationing seems inevitable. There’s simply not enough energy to meet Europe’s needs. European leaders have begged little Norway for more energy supplies, but Norway already supplies one-fifth of EU’s gas imports and is unable to deliver much more.

Moment of truth

When the war is over, few countries will have any confidence whatsoever in Russia as an energy supplier. Europe is determined to increase its energy production to make itself less dependent on Russia, but it’s impossible to make up for the loss of the Russian supplies in the short term.

Norway’s hydropower also supplies a lot of energy to Europe, but the levels in Norwegian water reservoirs haven’t been lower for 25 years. Even when it does rain, it’s not enough; the soil around the reservoirs is so dry that it absorbs whatever it can. The same applies to the rest of Europe in the wake of a record dry summer.

The European energy system is deficient and vulnerable. Everyone can see that, not least the Russian authorities – and they’re exploiting it. So, what should Europe do now?

Growing need

According to the EU’s European Environment Agency, (EEA), Europe’s energy consumption will be 11% higher in 2030 than it was in 2005. but the need for energy development in Europe exceeds that. When Russian supplies fail, Europe must undertake colossal development of its energy production. But how?

Everyone agrees that the world has to shift from fossil fuel production. It’s absolutely vital if we are to slow down global warming and everything it brings with it. On top of that, fossil fuel is one of the main sources of air pollution, which according to a recent study kills 6.5 million people annually. That’s about as many as the number of people who died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the course of two and a half years.

According to 2021 statistics from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA), oil accounts for 30.9% of global energy production, coal for 26.8% and natural gas for 23.2%. That amounts to over 80%. Biofuels and waste, nuclear and hydro make up the rest. The green energy technologies we hear about so much – wind, solar and wave – account for just over 2% of global energy production.

The EEA expects fossil fuel to dominate for a long time to come, but that’s not where the growth is happening; 60% of the growth in this period will come from renewable energy. So what will the energy market look like in a few decades from now?

Not in my backyard

Norway has been blessed with a unique supply of energy for more than 100 years. At the beginning of the 1900s, the country’s thousands of waterfalls were bought up on a large scale. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman.

New energy generation

A lot of research is looking at new forms of energy production, and there’s no shortage of good ideas. For example, the energy that solar winds hurl into space can be harnessed. On farms, cow manure and food waste can be decomposed and provide fertiliser for the soil and gas to power generators, or streets, squares and buildings can be laid with tiles that generate energy when people walk on them. Some researchers are looking at how to turn sewage into biofuel, others at how to do the same thing with algae. Clean hydrogen.

Systems are also being developed that will change how energy is distributed. For example, a new city district could have solar panels installed on all the building roofs – and in the walls for that matter. The energy from the panels could be stored in batteries. If an excavator cut a power cable from a large power plant outside the city, the power supply to that district would not be affected. It could distribute power between the buildings or even sell it. Systems like these could reduce the need for large-scale central power plants.

Combined, the newest technologies may make a valuable contribution to the overall problem, but so far none of them can generate enough energy to meet increasing needs. That situation may change, but the need for the more conventional forms of energy production will not disappear for a long, long time.

Back to the core

“The time of nuclear renaissance has come,” said French president Emmanuel Macron in February 2022. He promised to build 14 new large-scale nuclear power plants in addition to a number of small new-generation reactors. The workers he was addressing (this was two months before the presidential election, the high season for making election promises) applauded. Unlike wind farms, nuclear power plants mean jobs; first to build them, then to operate them.

But not everyone welcomes the nuclear renaissance. Many nature protection organisations are fighting it tooth and nail, and understandably so, given the serious impacts of the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Moreover, radioactive waste from reactors poses a major and potentially hazardous problem. Many critics also point out that building a nuclear power plant takes years and that maintenance is costly. Moreover, the unusually warm rivers in France this summer made it difficult to cool reactors.

On the other hand, emissions from nuclear power plants and land use requirements are minimal, and they generate significant amounts of energy. For those reasons, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) believe they can’t be avoided if we want to achieve net zero emission targets.

That said, even the strongest supporters of nuclear power have to admit that the world needs other technologies, too, simply because the plants – unlike alternative technologies like windmills – take too long to develop.

Winds of change

Climate change agreements are key drivers of development, but profitability can hardly be overestimated.

There’s no doubt that renewable energy will grow significantly. It’s already attracting investors, and research and development financiers are now eyeing the potential to make huge profits at some point in the future. They seem to be particularly interested in five different energy sources: hydro, wind, solar, biowaste and geothermal energy.

If I were to invest in an energy production plant, I would want to know which technology can produce the most energy (revenues) over time for the total cost of building, operating and maintaining it (expenses). Or to put it another way: how to get the most energy for my money. This is called LCOE, or levelised cost of energy.

In the summer of 2021, the World Economic Forum concluded that renewable technologies are now also the cheapest, and that the costs are continuing to fall year on year. The difference can be further widened with tax incentives and the like. This means the old coal power plants and other fossil fuel sources would lose their competitiveness.

Offshore wind energy looks very promising, but the technology is still expensive and immature. The most profitable technologies right now are solar and onshore wind, which – unlike nuclear power plants – can be quickly developed. If the coal mines are shut down at the same fast pace at the same time as new nuclear power plants are built, there is still a chance of reaching the net zero emission target in 2050.

But there are many who are tilting at windmills.

All energy production entails human intervention

Although wind energy may sound benign, the extent of human intervention involved is huge. A wind farm requires extensive land areas. On top of that come the concrete, metals and minerals needed to build the windmills and the foundations they stand on.

Indeed, in 2019 wind energy was the subject of one of Norway’s most heated energy debates. A wind farm was to be developed on Haramsøya in Sunnmøre. The developer had been granted the necessary permit, but the local community (and gradually environmental activists from all over the country) protested against what they rightly called a destruction of nature. They sabotaged construction work, chained themselves to construction machinery and took legal action to stop the development, but to no avail.

The demonstrators on Haramsøya are part of a growing international trend. They are not necessarily opponents of wind energy (though some are, arguing that Norway should continue to invest solely in oil and gas); they just don’t want to have the windmills in their local community. Protest movements like these are referred to internationally as NIMBY (“not in my backyard”). Canada has seen a number of NIMBY actions against wind energy developments in Nova Scotia. Similar actions have been carried out elsewhere, from Australia to Florida. Everyone wants renewable energy, but no one wants it being produced in their neighbourhood.

If my grandfather were still alive, he could have looked straight out at the 150-metre-high windmills on Haramsøya. Perhaps it’s just as well he was spared from that.

Joacim Lund

Joacim Lund
Technology commentator, Aftenposten
Years in Schibsted: 17