Dusseldorf Germany is increasingly covering its natural gas needs with liquefied natural gas. According to the market research company Icis, Germany imported around 485,000 gigawatt hours of natural gas from Belgium and the Netherlands last year – more than four times as much as in the previous year. The two countries, in turn, increased their imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by around 120 percent in favor of Germany. At the same time, Germany hardly delivered pipeline gas to France, which is why France doubled its LNG imports.
Germany’s gas requirements thus ensure higher LNG imports in several European countries. And the first German LNG terminals, which have recently made it possible to import liquefied natural gas directly to Germany, have also sparked enthusiasm among politicians and entrepreneurs.
But this has consequences for the environment. It is almost forgotten that Germany had deliberately decided against importing liquefied natural gas for decades. One reason for this: the poor climate balance of LNG. Because some of the liquefied natural gas comes from countries as far away as the USA or the Arabian Peninsula. Ships transport it over thousands of kilometers and emit CO2 in the process. Europe’s massive LNG imports raise the question of how big their impact on the climate is.
Russian natural gas production is particularly ‘dirty’
The federal government actually wanted to use gas as a bridging technology to speed up the energy transition. In mid-April, the last three nuclear power plants in Germany are to be finally taken off the grid. And Germany also wants to phase out electricity generation with coal by 2030, at least in the west.
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Until there is sufficient renewable energy and storage, many new gas-fired power plants are expected to fill the gap left by the shutdown of nuclear and coal-fired power plants. When it is burned, gas emits less CO2 than coal – this should relieve the climate more quickly. But does this logic also apply if more and more gas is coming to Europe as LNG?
Gas from Russia has always been significantly ‘dirtier’ than Norwegian because Russia has much older, less efficient plants and less tight controls on fugitive methane emissions. Jens Burchardt, climate expert at the management consultancy BCG
The climate expert Jens Burchardt from the management consultancy BCG says: “The CO2 emissions from combustion in power plants are just as high with LNG as with pipeline gas, because LNG is simply gas that has been transported in liquid form.”
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Logically, when formerly liquefied and later regasified gas is burned, just as much CO2 is released as when burning gas that came to Germany through pipelines.
But there is still a climate difference between the two gas forms. This is due to the so-called pre-chain emissions. These already occur during gas production, because methane escapes during this process. According to Burchardt, how much that is depends on the location of the conveyor and the conveyor technology – and on how much the conveyor invests to minimize leaks.
LNG is ten percent more CO2-intensive than Russian pipeline gas
“Russian gas has always been significantly ‘dirtier’ than Norwegian because Russia has much older, less efficient plants and less tight controls on fugitive methane emissions,” Burchardt said.
In addition to the methane that is released during production, upstream emissions also include methane that escapes during long transport through the pipeline. This also has a negative impact on the balance of Russian natural gas, which comes from faraway Siberia. According to a 2018 study by the Federal Environment Agency, the upstream emissions from Russian pipeline gas are around four times higher than those from Norway.
But as bad as Russian pipeline gas is for the environment, LNG is usually even worse. According to the study, upstream LNG emissions are 2.2 to three times those of Germany’s 2018 natural gas consumption mix – which consisted largely of Russian gas.
Burchardt explains: “With LNG, long-distance transport through large pipelines is no longer necessary. For this, energy must be used for liquefaction and regasification. There are also emissions from shipping, both from outgassing and from the propulsion of the ship itself.”
“The more climate-damaging the fuel, the cheaper it is to generate electricity”
These emissions vary depending on the distance of the producing country from Germany. According to Burchardt, LNG that comes from Norway only generates 10 to 15 kilos of CO2 per megawatt hour before it arrives in Germany. With US LNG, on the other hand, it is 60 to 80 kilos.
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The 60 to 80 kilos of US LNG increase the total CO2 emissions caused by one megawatt hour of gas, including combustion, by around a quarter. Overall, American LNG produces around 260 kilos of CO2 per megawatt hour. According to Burchardt, in the worst case, this is about ten percent more than would be the case with Russian pipeline gas.
The bottom line, however, is that LNG is still a much better choice than coal for powering power plants. First, if LNG comes from nearby countries, it can have even lower upstream emissions than Russian pipeline gas. Secondly, according to Burchardt, about 330 kilos of CO2 per megawatt hour are produced during the extraction, transport and combustion of hard coal. With lignite it is even 400 kilos.
In addition, gas-fired power plants are more efficient than coal-fired power plants. If you burn one megawatt hour of coal, you only get 0.4 to 0.45 megawatt hours of electricity – with gas it is up to 0.6 megawatt hours of electricity.
If you look at the costs of the respective power plants and fuels, it becomes clear why Germany has relied heavily on lignite for a long time. “The trend for the majority of fossil power plants in Germany is: the more climate-damaging the fuel, the cheaper it is to generate electricity,” says Burchardt.
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