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I’m in Sighetu, Romania, a hard-working, not very scenic town only a few kilometres from the Ukrainian border, which I plan to cross today after yesterday’s failed attempt to do so.
I had made my way through the dozens of tents and rows of marquees (usually used for weddings) that now house the aid organisations providing everything from baby formula and pet food to Ukrainians streaming across the bridge from Ukraine.
When I got to the bridge I was informed that for 24 hours nobody was being allowed to leave Romania because staff were swamped with the task of processing incoming refugees. Consequently, I returned to Sighetu, where I had a meal in a restaurant decorated entirely in mauve tiles with blue plastic light-fittings, giving the strong impression that one was eating inside a North Korean gymnasium.
At the next table was an American who worked in the natural gas industry here in Transylvania. Given the importance of energy, natural gas in particular, in the unhappy events to the north, I was keen to hear anything he had to say. And (being from Texas) this tattooed, mullet-haired engineer had much to say. For example, I had no idea that Romania is the 30th largest producer of natural gas in the world and the second largest in Europe.
Actually, there was little Paul didn’t know about the energy issues so key to this catastrophe. As we all know, natural gas is a powerful weapon in Putin’s arsenal — maybe his most powerful one. But as Paul pointed out between gulps from the litre bottles in which beer is served here, summer is approaching and Europe’s need for heating is getting less and less by the week.
Furthermore, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has just released a paper outlining how Europe can reduce consumption of Russian natural gas by up to 10% simply by turning down its thermostats by as little as one degree. Paul laughs at how easy this would be to do, and wonders how Putin’s leverage and ability to finance his war would be compromised if the bourgeoise of Western Europe were prepared to turn down the heating by a whole two degrees.
Having grown up in old English houses in the 1970s, when central heating was rare and one simply wore a jersey when inside draughty old houses, I know this is easily do-able. The IEA paper suggests ways to reduce consumption of Russian gas by a third before next winter through a bundle of measures that include delaying the closure of nuclear plants and fast-tracking the construction of renewable energy, among others.
Suddenly it seems Vladimir Putin may have done the renewable energy industries an enormous favour, as his invasion has highlighted that the only way Europe can escape his grubby embrace and stop inadvertently financing his aggression is by switching to renewable energy sources.
Bloomberg reports that this week shares in the giant wind turbine manufacturers Vestus Wind Systems and Siemens Renewable Energy rose by about 15%, and those of Nordex by over 20%. The two best performing companies on the S&P 500 this week were Sunrun (which makes residential solar panels) Enphase and Solar Edge (manufacturers of inverters) as investors noted this trend.
A strong move towards renewable energy was already under way for environmental reasons, but issues of energy security around Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels have been highlighted in the most crude way imaginable by Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
All of which means that according to Paul (and Bloomberg), this move to environmentally friendly energy use and sourcing may, in fact, be supercharged in the coming months.
• Davenport, former chief creative officer at advertising agency Havas Southern Africa, resigned to cover the crisis in Ukraine.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.