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Winter is approachinginternational geopolitical tensions seem far from being resolved, and some concern is beginning to spread among the Italians.
How much will the bills already skyrocketing? Are we really willing to accept a slightly more uncomfortable everyday life, putting on a heavier sweater at home and giving up long hot showers? And above all, these little ones individual sacrifices they will be used to guarantee the tightness of the national energy system?
In a period of confusion, electoral promises and hypotheses to be proved, we wanted to ask these questions to someone who can answer with the tools of science: Nicola Armarolichemist, research manager at the National Research Councilmember ofNational Academy of Sciences and government consultant in charge. In addition to directing the magazine KnowArmaroli has over 250 scientific articles and numerous books to his credit: the next one is out in September 2022 and is entitled “A world in crisis. Gas, oil, renewables, climate: it’s time for a change“(Dedalo editions).
We discuss the need to adapt our individual lifestyle to cutting gas supplies, for example by lowering the temperature of the heating. Can such measures, if adopted on a large scale, serve to buffer the situation?
The starting point is that we have to do without a not insignificant amount of Russian gas. The 30 billion cubic meters that Russia provided us last year, equal to 40% of our consumption, they are not replaceable in the short term: there is no regasifier that holdsthere is no supply of liquid gas to hold. China, India and Japanin fact, they did not stand by and signed numerous contracts. And of liquid gas there is little or no on the markets.
Our only prospect of having extra shares of gas in a hurry, true and concrete, is that of reduce consumption. We cannot imagine spending the winter in peace because we have the storage 100% full, that’s not how it works. On a typical winter day, half of the gas comes from storage and half from daily imports. If the latter is strongly reduced, we go into crisis quickly: as it empties, moreover, the storage reservoir delivers less and less gas because the pressure decreases.
We therefore have the savings. Initially, the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (Enea) and the Minister of Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani presented a study that said that we would have saved 2.7 billion cubic meters of methane gas with individual behaviors. In my opinion it is an underestimate, so much so that the National plan for the containment of natural gas consumption is more optimistic. For “individual behaviors”Means a three-minute shower, the thermostats lowered by 1-2 degrees if there are no elderly people in the house, a one-month reduction in the heating switch-on period and so on. All this must be combined with the savings of electric energy40% produced by gas with peaks of 60% in winter.
These savings shares have been mocked for years Why, as long as energy is cheap, no one has any problems. When there is no other choice, then savings are important. It is to be hoped that it will be a mild winter, but obviously no one is able to predict this.
Is there a risk of an aggravation of inequalities between those who will be forced to make sacrifices and who, for better or worse, will continue to lead their former lives because they can afford it economically? Are there any means to avoid it?
Surely there will be an opportunity to circumvent the new rules because it is unthinkable that there are house-to-house checks. The situation is a lot worrying also from the point of view socialbecause there are families and businesses who literally cannot afford to pay these bills.
The state is rightly helping families and businesses in difficultybut at the same time it will have to bear the stratospheric increases in the bills of hospitals, schools, universities, public administration offices and so on. It is inevitable that gets into further debt and it will be the most fragile sections of the population that will pay the consequences in the medium to long term.
What will certainly happen, as always during energy crisesis the lowering of consumption induced by the surge in prices. However, if this triggers an economic crisis, the result is layoffs and workers in layoffs, with a further burden for the state.
What role does financial gas speculation play? Can the state actually do something to stem it?
A perverse mechanism is in placeat the time also wanted by European governments. Since 2010 the price of gas was released from that of oil. A separate market has been created that has gotten out of control, determining the daily price for everyone without any real justification. The increase in gas had already begun before the war. This is the litmus test: Will politics intervene on the nefarious effects of the market, or does it now consider them ineluctable?
The gas market in turn drags the electricity market. For the system of the so-called marginal price, each producer offers electricity at a certain price, but the higher one wins. Therefore, if the energy produced by photovoltaics costs 10 and that produced by gas costs 100, the end customer will pay 100. This is a market mechanism that can be changed, and a policy worthy of the name must do so. Instead, it is useless to hope to create a price cap on gas: the seller, not the buyer, decides the price..
One of the reasons why the European Union does not act cohesively lies in the fact that the energy portfolio of its 27 countries is very heterogeneous: in Germany the primary Source is oil, in Italy it is gas, in France it is nuclear. Upstream, we’ve never had one in Europe common energy policy. Now we pay the price hard.CopyAMP code
Given that the government will take office in October, will it have time to implement useful interventions for the winter?
The current government is continuing to perform its functions, about this crisis, in an almost ordinary way. Certainly the uncertain political situation does not help, but the fact remains that the winner of the election – regardless of who it will be – will have limited room for maneuverbecause it will have to deal with strong external constraints.
Nobody knows exactly how it will turn out in the coming months. Among the aspects that are not usually discussed is the fact that gas is a fundamental raw material for the chemical industry. If the large German chemical industries – heavily dependent on Russian gas – decrease their production, there will be a domino effect on other industrial sectors:
and so on.
In short, methane is not just energy, but it also serves to do “things”. Including fertilizers and, therefore, food.
Moving on to medium-long term solutions, during the election campaign there was also discussion of a possible return to nuclear power, with fourth generation plants. In terms of time and cost, is this a viable path?
No. The fourth generation power plants we studied them thirty years ago at university, they did not exist at the time and still do not exist. Even if they existed, it would take at least twenty years to build them. And we need to decarbonise our energy system by 2050: we don’t have time.
It is useless to talk about nuclear power when it is a distant prospect and which involves enormous costs. The only reactor turned on in Europe in the last twenty years is that of Olkiluoto-3, in Finland, which cost three times as much as expected and has not yet fed a single kWh of electricity into the grid. It will, perhaps, in December. The reactor under construction in the UK, Hinkley Point Cit cost almost double compared to the initial plans: it was supposed to go into operation in 2017, it will – perhaps – in 2028.
As I also wrote in my book “Energy emergency. We have no more time“(Dedalo editions, 2020), we have no time to waste on nuclear discussions. In Italy, governments change on average every 13 months and 94% of the municipalities are located in areas with high hydrogeological risk: how is it possible to design nuclear waste storage plants and sites in Italy, working hard for centuries? We need to be realistic: it is technology that must be adapted to the world, not the other way around.
Can renewables represent a valid alternative to gas?
The only prospect is to switch to renewables. The first thing to do is electrificationstarting with transport. Electric cars consume a quarter of the energy compared to thermal cars, they have a battery that does not need to be changed during the life of the car and that can be recycled.
I recharge my car with the energy produced on the roof of the house: one home which has a sturdy external casing, is detached from the gas, has a geothermal heat pump, a photovoltaic system for electricity with storage battery (cobalt-free) and solar thermal to heat the water for the bathroom and kitchen. What’s the point of burning cubic meters of gas from other continents to shower, if we have the heat of the sun at our disposalwho can do it for free and zero km for at least 8-11 months a year?
The energy transition will not be made by complex, futuristic and very expensive technologies, such as nuclear fusion or underground storage of CO2. The solution to our problems lies in simple technologies, already available on the market and already competitive now: geothermal at low temperatures, photovoltaic, wind, batteries, smart grids, network digitization to balance supply and demand.
The more serious problem is that we are in a hurry, we started late and we have to make a frenzied race. And it is not said that we will make it. It is not certain that the world industrial system will be able to support the transition of eight billion people in the necessary time. Technology solves part of our problems, but a sense of limit is also needed. We have largely overcome it and are already paying the consequences.