IEA's Strategy for Tackling EU's Gas Shortage Is Treehugger-Approved

It is calling for energy efficiency, renewables, heat pumps, and behavior change.

rsula von der Leyen (L) and the Executive director of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol (R) talk to media in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on December 12, 2022 in Brussels,
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and the Executive director of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol (R) talk to media in Brussels.

Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

The International Energy Agency (IEA) was founded in 1974 "with a broad mandate on energy security and energy policy cooperation" that "included setting up a collective action mechanism to respond effectively to potential disruptions in oil supply." We used to think that meant just pumping more gas that wasn't from the Middle East, but in the current disruption of oil and gas supplies, the IEA has been serious about using less of the stuff. It has called for serious energy conservation, issued plans to cut oil use, and recently issued a report saying heat pumps are hot.

The IEA keeps cranking out the hits, too. Most recently, it issued a report on how to avoid gas shortages in the European Union in 2023, and it is a practical set of actions that would work anywhere at any time.

The report notes that the cuts in Russian gas imports are likely going to cause a demand gap, the difference between what Europe can get without Russia, and what they will need to get through the year—about 57 billion cubic meters (BCM). Measures already in place have reduced the gap by 30 BCM so there are 27 BCM left to find.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted at a press conference: "We are now turning our focus to preparing 2023, and the next winter. For this, Europe needs to step up its efforts in several fields, from international outreach to joint purchasing of gas and scaling up and speeding up renewables, and reducing demand.”

The IEA's proposed solutions sound more Treehugger than IEA. “The European Union has made significant progress in reducing reliance on Russian natural gas supplies, but it is not out of the danger zone yet,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Many of the circumstances that allowed EU countries to fill their storage sites ahead of this winter may well not be repeated in 2023. The IEA’s new analysis shows that a stronger push on energy efficiency, renewables, heat pumps, and simple energy saving actions is vital to head off the risk of shortages and further vicious price spikes next year.”

Nothing here about increasing the supply of fossil fuels through fracking or substituting hydrogen— there's no time. All of their proposals use existing technology.

closing the gap between supply and demand


Improve Energy Efficiency

"Increase home renovations and efficient appliance sales, enhance energy savings in public buildings and for public lighting, and provide support for industrial energy efficiency programmes that can realize immediate savings."

The IEA calls for renovation programs with financial support, prioritizing vulnerable households. It wants to see inefficient appliances and lighting replaced. "At the consumer level, the use and promotion of EU energy labels encourage efficient purchase decisions."

But it also calls for public sector efficiency, with mandated energy-saving targets for public buildings and public services, much like the White House recently announced in the U.S. It wants to see LEDs everywhere, all on smart controls. There should be support for industry, but for actions that have an immediate impact: "These actions can include installing or repairing insulation, replacing and upgrading motor systems, and installing monitoring systems."

Rapid Deployment of Renewables

"Reduce permitting timelines, increase investor confidence through stronger incentives and market regulation, and promote the integration of renewables and distributed resources."

There are lots of projects going through approvals, but these are taking too much time. In what sounds like every building permit application ever, systems are out of date, and the IEA class for "the use of digital form of documents, e-communication and digitalization of the whole administrative process, to accelerate permit processing." And to deal with all the NIMBYs: "Preventing single jurisdictions from holding up permitting can also be addressed through the ‘positive silence’ concept, which has been introduced in Spain."

Many small solar projects get held up with local jurisdictions, so the IEA wants to "ease the authorization process for smaller rooftop projects to provide fast returns" since "these contribute to the majority of installations in the faster case for PV deployment."

Electrify Heat and Bring on the Heat Pumps

"Provide financial incentives for heat pump purchases, change tax measures that disadvantage electrification, and scale up support for industrial electrification."

The IEA noted that heat pumps provide a major improvement in efficiency, being three to five times more energy efficient than gas boilers. Heat pumps would lead to about 5 terawatt-hours of additional electricity demand, but they are so efficient that "the gas savings far outweigh increases in gas use in the power system."

The IEA also makes the point that I keep hammering away at: "Carrying out energy efficiency retrofits in parallel help reduce the size of a heat pump, minimizing strain on grids." No heatpumpification without insulation.

Encourage Behavior Changes

"Adjust heating controls in gas-heated buildings, deploy smart meters to provide real-time feedback to consumers, embed efficiency into default settings on appliances, and support the public sector to develop and implement emergency energy-saving measures."

The question of whether behavior change matters has been an ongoing argument on Treehugger forever, but as far as the IEA is concerned, they work.

They call for Europeans to turn down the thermostat but also deploy smart meters that tell consumers what their consumption patterns are. This feedback worked in Japan, resulting in a 2% decrease in consumption. The public sector can lead by example, as has been seen in Germany.

"Well-structured emergency measures can embed behavioral changes. In 2022 over ten EU countries launched energy-saving campaigns asking citizens to take voluntary actions ranging from taking shorter showers, line-drying clothes, turning down thermostats in the winter and more. Austria's Mission 11, Ireland's Reduce Your Use, Finland's “A degree lower − saving energy towards winter”, Estonia's "Together we can handle the energy crisis,” and others appeal to solidarity in the face of the crisis by offering citizens a variety of actions and support in the form of grants, subsidies, and resources. Approaching campaign design as a business decision may improve the results. The Netherlands, for instance, looked at the return-on-investment (ROI) of their recent Flip the Switch Campaign by conducting a citizen survey, in this case demonstrating that 95% of the respondents have undertaken at least one of the recommended energy-saving measures."

All five of the IEA strategies to reduce gas consumption in Europe next year have been our bread and non-dairy topping at Treehugger since we started, perhaps except for heatpumpification. They all work and they all work together. They don't just work in Europe to deal with the Russian gas problem—they work everywhere to reduce fossil fuel consumption. They don't just work for 2023 but can work for 2030 and 2050. Winston Churchill purportedly said to "never let a good crisis go to waste" after the Second World War ... it's still true.

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