The constant supply of energy is something we often take for granted. Securing that energy supply is vital. It ensures our homes are heated – or air-conditioned – that we can phone, use lights and computers and that our hospitals, public transport and other essential services, like water distribution, function.
How does the EU contribute to assure energy security to its nearly 500 million citizens? And what happens if the security of that energy supply is threatened?
Electricity and gas – uninterrupted flows
A key role is to encourage cross-border cooperation and inter-connections to make energy flow more smoothly across the whole of the EU. When there is no sun or wind to produce electricity, it is key for an EU country to be able to rely on imports of electricity produced in a neighbouring EU country.
To make the European energy system capable of dealing with possible disruptions, the EU also promotes greater diversification of sources of supply, for instance by having a wider choice of renewable energies and energy storage solutions available, so that if one source fails, another can compensate.
Similarly, maintaining the stable supply of electricity for all Europeans is no easy task, given that the EU electrical power grid is one of the largest and most complex systems in the world. As with gas pipelines, electricity grids are strongly interconnected across Europe and well beyond the EU. An outage in one country might trigger blackouts or shortages of supply in other areas and countries. The European Commission works to assure our electricity supply is safe and reliable, though a well-designed and functioning electricity market, so that electricity is always available where needed.
When it comes to gas, Europe relies heavily on non-EU supplies. We therefore need to minimise the risks, whether on issues surrounding the critical infrastructure physically bringing that gas into Europe, or geopolitical issues creating uncertainty surrounding our relationships with suppliers.
And if there is a crisis….?
Adequate risk preparedness and smooth cross-border cooperation are paramount to help prevent or manage crisis situations, so that Member States are both willing and able to work together in solidarity in the event of a shortage.
One of the recently adopted legislative tools the EU has at hand is the Regulation on risk preparedness in the electricity sector. This law was adopted in 2019 as part of the Clean energy for all Europeans package and requires that Member States work to identify all possible crisis scenarios at national and regional levels that could impact their electricity supply. Based on these scenarios, authorities are tasked with developing risk preparedness plans to address each eventuality. Crucially, this exercise stimulates cooperation and coordination for partnership between Member States.
Protecting critical energy infrastructure has grown in importance over the past decades due to the high cascading impact that might result from a serious damage caused for instance by a terrorist attack. Protecting this infrastructure is also increasingly important due to one of the biggest changes in our society: the digital transformation. Digitalisation has revolutionised every aspect of our lives. This includes the energy sector, where digital technologies and the speedy transfer of data have improved accuracy and efficiency. It has also allowed those working in the area to more quickly identify and address any changes to the energy supply and demand.
At the same time, digitalisation creates new vulnerabilities in the energy sector. Cybersecurity and digitalisation are two sides of the same coin. As such, in modern times ensuring the security of supply now also implies improving our resilience against any coordinated cyber-attack targeting Europe’s energy infrastructure.
Measures, such as those detailed above, ensure that Europe is better prepared for an unexpected crisis when it comes. Unfortunately, 2020 is an example of such a case.
In recent weeks, the word ‘unprecedented’ has taken centre stage in narratives across the globe due to the arrival of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). Life has been in lockdown in most countries as we adjust to new ways of working and living. Significantly, the huge disruption caused by COVID-19 has shone a light on our reliance on a robust energy system, vital to the secure supply of energy for our hospitals, industries producing medical equipment and other essential activities and for people, who are forced to remain at home.
So how secure is our energy supply? Simply put, there is currently no threat in terms of energy security and the European energy system has shown its resilience. Electricity, gas and oil can flow where it is needed, and in particular where it is needed the most. Thanks to the high degree of digitalisation,the existing overriding importance given to security in the sector and a robust EU framework, energy operators (in particular those operating critical infrastructure like nuclear plants and control centres) already had well elaborated business continuity plans or even pandemic plans. As the pandemic has evolved in different Member States, they could therefore take all the necessary measures to protect the safety and health of their employees, while ensuring continuity of service.
In terms of immediate crisis management, Commission officials have been holding regular meetings with the national authorities and industries on gas, electricity, oil and nuclear sectors to exchange good practices between Member States, identify possible difficulties, take remedial actions, draw lessons to reinforce our preparedness in different scenarios and possible new crises. In short, the EU, the Member States and the industry have been working hard to ensure the security of energy supply, now and in the future.
Where do we go from here?
After the crisis of COVID-19, energy security will remain an important issue at the heart of European energy policy and key for a more resilient society. As we emerge from the corona virus crisis, the EU, and beyond, faces a significant economic downturn, the scale of which is difficult to predict at this point. Despite this uncertainty, EU leaders have underlined the importance of pressing on with our ambition of becoming climate-neutral by 2050 and this should influence the public and private investment decisions and new policy programmes that will follow in the coming months. This is also the opportunity to further improve energy security and the resilience of society. Renovating buildings, for example, will have the combined benefits of reducing energy consumption (thereby saving money for consumers and reducing greenhouse gas emissions), while also creating jobs and stimulating the local economy.
This way forward reflects the wishes of Europe’s citizens. A recent Eurobarometer survey confirmed that in all EU Member States, citizens overwhelmingly support to increase ambition to strengthen Europe’s energy security.
For more information: Energy security
27 April 2020