What If Europe Loses Russian Natural Gas?

Electric heaters might help people cope

5 min read
cartoon of man in yellow uniform holding a giant plug

A Rosie-the-Riveter style illustration from Rewiring America.

Rewiring America

To help dodge sanctions, Russia had demanded that by the start of this month, members of the European Union begin paying for the natural gas it was buying in rubles rather than dollars or euros, threatening to cut off supplies if they didn’t. And the recent revelation of atrocities committed by the Russian military in Ukraine have renewed calls to boycott Russian gas, an action European countries are struggling to figure out how to implement.

Even before all this, just a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a press release titled, “How Europe can cut natural gas imports from Russia significantly within a year.” The IEA’s 10-point plan includes strategies for replacing Russian gas (which represents nearly 40 percent of all the natural gas the E.U. consumes) with other energy sources and for reducing demand.

The first of the IEA’s prescriptions for reducing demand is to “speed up the replacement of gas boilers with heat pumps.” Heat pumps are, basically, air conditioners that run in reverse. Powered by electricity, they can “pump” heat from the environment at a colder temperature into a building at a warmer temperature.

In the United States, the common perception is that heat pumps are suitable only for comparatively warm climates. For example, Trane, a leading manufacturer of heating and cooling equipment, says on its website “that heat pumps are best for moderate climates.” Carrier, another prominent U.S. manufacturer, echoes that message on its website, saying “Heat pumps are more common in milder climates, where the temperature does not typically drop below freezing.”

“This has been one of the myths,” says Jan Rosenow, European program director for the Regulatory Assistance Project, “that heat pumps don’t work in cold climates.” He regards it as misinformation “coming from an industry that is under threat.” This misunderstanding is common not just in the United States, says Rosenow, but also in European countries that don’t have a lot of heat pumps.

The distribution of heat pumps in Europe supports Rosenow’s contention. The European countries where heat pumps are most used are some of the coldest, including Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where more than 40 percent of homes use heat pumps. But Rosenow explains that “there is a shortage of installers in Europe; there is a shortage of kit.”

The shortages, combined with the urgency of the problem that the war in Ukraine has created, prompted the nonprofit organization Rewiring America to issue a policy plan on 9 March calling for U.S. manufacturers to help the E.U. rapidly expand the deployment of heat pumps. “We’d be fooling ourselves if we did not take a wartime-production view,” says Ari Mutasiak, CEO of Rewiring America.

Mutasiak has been working with climate activist Bill McKibben, who just a few days after war broke out proposed in a blog post that the Biden administration invoke the Defense Production Act to lend U.S. manufacturing might to the effort to speed the replacement of gas-fired boilers with electric heat pumps in Europe. And on 8 March, the Washington Post reported that the White House was taking this suggestion under serious consideration.

There’s a fundamental shortcoming with this approach, though.

The IEA estimates that expanding the use of heat pumps could make only a small dent, saving just 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, a mere 1.3 percent of what Russia provides the E.U. If you’re an optimist, maybe double or triple that savings. It still doesn’t move the needle far enough to help much by next winter, which could be the deadline here.

What if in the next few weeks or months Russia were to follow through on its threats to cut off the natural gas that it is sending to E.U. countries? Or what if E.U. leaders acted on what seems to many to be a moral obligation to impose a boycott? How could E.U. officials, engineers, or individual homeowners prepare for such an eventuality?

I posed this question to energy expert and IEEE Spectrum columnist Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, who wrote about some of the war’s implications for fossil fuels just a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. He stressed that there are enormous structural impediments to making the kind of changes necessary to respond to such a natural-gas embargo.

Pressed to consider what could be done if the E.U. soon loses access to Russian gas entirely, Smil offered a few suggestions. European nations (which he stresses have varying degrees of dependence on Russian gas) would want to look to generate as much electricity as they can using alternative fuels—just as the IEA notes in the “Going Faster and Further” addendum to its 10-point plan, which outlines some temporary fuel-switching options. They could gear up to switch fuels in the central boilers used for district heating, which warms a quarter of E.U. homes. Also, “you could distribute electric heaters,” says Smil, referring not to heat pumps but to simple electric space heaters.

Such heaters are, of course, not an efficient way to heat your entire home. But small portable units could very well help people who are forced to do in a big way next winter what the IEA sees the most effective conservation strategy of all: Turn down the thermostat.

The IEA’s 10-point plan calls for reducing temperatures by just 1° C. But if push truly came to shove, the E.U. as a whole could in theory save enough energy to displace all imported Russian gas by implementing the IEA plan and fuel-switching measures if people also reduced indoor temperatures more drastically—by something like 8° or 9° C, which would be the amount needed according to the IEA’s estimate that each degree lower on everyone’s thermostats would result in an annual savings of 10 billion cubic meters of gas. This prescription glosses over the differences in the use of Russian gas among E.U. countries, but it gives you an idea of just how drastic the needed temperature reductions would be.

Turning down the heat by that much would be very difficult, to say the least. The IEA indicates average indoor temperatures in the E.U. are now about 22° C, so we’re talking about temperatures over winter months of just 13° or 14° C (55° to 57° F). That’s darn cold, but most people could manage that hardship, particularly if they used electric heaters to warm the air further in a small space surrounding them.

Space heaters could thus prove immensely helpful in a heating crisis. And unlike heat pumps, which are relatively complex pieces of machinery costing thousands of dollars and requiring skilled contractors to install, electric space heaters are simple, cheap, and easy to use.

Could enough space heaters be produced in the limited time available before next winter? Sure, says Smil: “Germany's Siemens is already the E.U.’s largest industrial manufacturing company, and so they could turn to mass-producing electric heaters—they could also tell the Chinese, where the company is well established, ‘We need 10 million heaters,’ and they could make them.” What’s more, space heaters are “rapidly distributable and scalable,” says Smil, should they be needed “in extremis.”

So Rewiring America, Bill McKibben, and various E.U. energy policymakers are right to be thinking about electric sources of heat and how they could help reduce the E.U.’s reliance on Russian natural gas. But in their enthusiasm for heat pumps, whose value will take years to manifest to a significant extent, they overlooked what could prove a more realistic option for next winter should a new kind of Cold War challenge the nearly 450 million residents of the EU: the lowly electric space heater.

The Conversation (11)
Mats Alexanderson
Mats Alexanderson14 Apr, 2022

Since >20 years, my 1946 house is heated with a heat pump connected to a 180m deep drilled hole. This system replaced the old oil-fired boiler and connects to the existing water circulation radiators. It is the standard method in Sweden today. Installation costs approx. $15000 and the return on investment is commonly in the 5-10 year span. My friends in Italy have never heard of this technology and ask me what kind of magic is involved. Being a heat pump it needs electricity to run, but the efficiency is much higher than with direct heating. For those with open room planning, an air-to-air heat pump is an efficient support even at freezing temperatures outside. It is used by many Swedish owners of houses from the 70s and 80s, which often were built with direct electricity radiator heating. It can be complemented by a convection system that moves air within the apartment. I am surprised to hear how little spreading the heat pump technology has got and about the misconception that it doesn't work in cold climates.

1 Reply
Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson10 Apr, 2022

Does Europe have the infrastructure to generate and distribute enough electric power for this to be practical?

Anthony Izzo
Anthony Izzo10 Apr, 2022

This left me wondering where the electricity is supposed to come from. Is not most of the gas imported from Russia used to generate electricity? Especially in the wake up Europe's sharp pullback from nuclear?

1 Reply