Refreshed climate ambition from two key countries

In recent months, two key countries have sent revised nationally determined contributions (NDC) to the UNFCCC, notably my home country Australia and India. An NDC […]

As the EU grapples with the challenge of displacing Russian oil and gas and meeting immediate needs as Russian supplies are cut, the question of the scale and speed of the energy transition emerges. How fast can Russian supplies be displaced by the transition itself?

The two charts below show the current situation. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas supplies from Russia and into Europe contributed to about 40% of overall European demand, with local production making up much of the balance in the case of gas, but just about half the balance in the case of oil. In the case of gas, the flow to Europe is about a quarter of Russian supply, but for crude oil and oil products it’s nearly half.

Both charts show that European production has declined over twenty years and in the case of oil reached an apparent plateau around 2012. It’s unlikely that local production increases could make up for the cut in Russian supplies, so that leaves three immediate options;

  • Immediately cut overall energy demand, which in turn could translate to a reduced need for Russian supply.
  • Find supplies elsewhere.
  • Accelerate the energy transition to reduce the overall need for oil and gas in the energy mix.

While it’s clear from recent announcements that the EU strategy will embrace all three options in the short term, the longer term strategy will almost certainly rest with the transition itself. But such a transition could well take all of this decade, and probably longer, to complete.

Gas supply is perhaps the more problematic issue, as supply is less flexible globally than oil due to pipeline constraints, LNG capacity (the availability of shipping, liquefaction and regassification facilities) and long term storage. While gas has become a flexible commodity in the 21st century, it still remains easier to reorganise, redirect and store oil. However, gas may be faster to displace than oil from an energy transition perspective.

The gas chart above also shows how the rapid deployment of wind energy across Europe could be used to offset Russian gas requirements, but it’s a journey that takes the best part of a decade. This assumes a compounding growth rate in wind deployment of 10% per year, slightly above current levels of 8%, but equivalent to the growth rate from 2010 to 2017. However, with a much larger installed base, 10% growth in 2029-2030 means installing some 50 GW of wind in that year versus the 15 GW installed in 2017 and again in 2021. So the annual installation rate has to at least triple. Of course wind isn’t the only technology, there is solar PV as well, at least for the southern latitudes of Europe.

Further to the above, if rapid growth in renewables is focussed entirely on displacing Russian gas or filling the void left by the absence of Russian gas, less progress will be made in displacing the current use of coal in the EU. This could make meeting the EU 55% by 2030 emissions reduction goal more challenging, as eliminating coal for a given electricity production can deliver twice the emissions reduction versus the same shift for gas.

By contrast, displacement of Russian oil through the energy transition looks to be a slower process, although it may turn out to be less necessary. Oil is a more flexible commodity in terms of source and destination, although there could still be pinch points in the system, for example inland east European refineries tied to Russian crude via pipelines. The largest portion of EU oil demand is for transport and within that the capacity for replacement in the 2020s sits with electrification of passenger vehicles, vans and city buses. Alternatives for larger trucks, ships, barges and planes are not yet mature enough for fast large scale deployment.

If we assume a very rapid deployment of electric vehicles (EV), to the extent that all new sales are electric by late in the 2020s (a rate faster than the current goal of 2035 for all EV sales), only about 50 million tonnes per year of oil is displaced by 2030, or about a fifth of the oil that comes from Russia. This is because of the time it takes to turnover the exiting stock of vehicles. Within Europe there are some 250 million passenger cars (Source: Eurostat), but new car sales are in the range 12-16 million vehicles per year, so in eight years only about half the total stock will be replaced anyway. With EVs currently comprising about 10% of new sales, albeit that share growing rapidly, replacing even half the total vehicle stock with EVs will take longer.

In the end, a rapid energy transition can contribute significantly to the EU weaning itself off Russian oil and gas, but this won’t happen in the next few years. By the end of the decade significant progress can be made, especially for gas, but it will likely be well into the 2030s before the same is achieved for oil.




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