War in Ukraine triggered unique phase in renewables history

Human Geographer Thilo Wiertz speaks to pv magazine on the particular features that characterized the trajectory of renewable energies after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. He emphasized how the geopolitical tensions arising from this conflict have reshaped the political debate about the energy transition, with the energy security perspective gaining in importance.

The extraordinary uptick in renewable energy demand triggered by the beginning of the war in Ukraine, with the subsequent huge increase in the renewables industry’s global manufacturing capacity may have represented a unique phase in the history of clean energies, as well as in the political discourse surrounding energy matters.

This is the conclusion of a recent study conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Freiburg and the University of Münster in Germany, in which its authors analyzed the repercussions of the war on the public debate in their home country.

“This was a particular historic moment, and I do not see a reason why this dynamic should continue or become a regular cycle,” the research’s corresponding author, Thilo Wiertz, told pv magazine. “What seems clear to me is that Germany will not get back to the time of cheap natural gas. Germany is building large capacities for importing liquid natural gas (LNG) and this helps keep prices reasonably stable.”

Wiertz acknowledged that more global crises may occur in the future, but he also sees little reason to assume a regular pattern. He believes LNG will remain more expensive than past pipeline imports from Russia and will be in conflict with political commitments to reduce emissions. “At the same time, costs for producing renewable energy will remain low, particularly internationally,” he said.

According to Wiertz, the crisis experience has raised political and public awareness of the vulnerabilities resulting from dependence on fossil fuel imports. Those vulnerabilities are not new, but have largely been absent from the German energy discourse in the last decades.

“Before the war against Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis, renewable energy was perceived by many as expensive and unreliable,” he stated. “Fossil fuels, in contrast, were perceived as environmentally problematic, but economically more robust. This picture is slowly being turned upside down: Renewable energy is now presented as a way to diversify imports, decrease dependence, and strengthen energy sovereignty.”

This view is also being supported by falling production costs for renewable energy, particularly PV, and visions for a swift ramp-up of a global hydrogen economy. “We may be entering a time where renewable energy is seen not only as environmentally friendly, but as economically and politically more reliable,” Wiertz added. “Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are increasingly considered a geopolitical risk and burden of the past. And rightly so.”

In the paper “A Turn to Geopolitics: Shifts in the German Energy Transition Discourse in Light of Russia’s War Against Ukraine,” published in Energy Research & Social Science, Wiertz and his group analyzed newspaper articles, tweets, talk shows, and parliamentary speeches published immediately after the breakout of Ukraine‘s war and found the political discourse marked a geopolitical turn in Germany’s energy transition, the so-called Energiewende.

The researchers identified, in particular, four discursive shifts in the political discussion in Germany. The first one relates to the question of whether gas imports from Russia stall or favor the transition, while the second one is about a “new moral imperative” for lowering dependence on fossil fuels. The third shift is regarding the possibility of using conventional energy sources as bridging technologies, and the fourth one frames the discussion on the energy transition in terms of security, freedom, and sovereignty.

The discursive shifts that we identified are crucial for understanding the political future of the Energiewende and German energy politics more broadly,” the researchers explained. “At the time of writing, the war continues into its second year. It is reasonable to assume that the new geopolitical rationality and the identified lines of argument will shape the energy transition in Germany in the foreseeable future—and reshuffle established ideological positions.”

The researchers expect all political parties to reconsider their position toward the Enegiewende, stressing that discourses may change rapidly if circumstances change. “While discourse analysis often focuses on how certain perspectives become hegemonic over time, in the context of crises it can help to identify shifts at an early stage,” they also asserted.

This post appeared first on PV Magazine.

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