Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe sourced a great deal of natural gas from Russia. But as a result of EU sanctions on Russia, this supply is no longer there. European countries have scrambled to find and secure new suppliers. But if both the war and these sanctions last into next winter, gas will remain in short supply – especially if next winter is a cold one and people need a lot of gas for heating. There is a distinct possibility that a shortage of gas will mean homes go unheated and will force industry to halt production. As a result, some countries might be tempted to prioritise the needs of their own citizenry and economy over showing solidarity to other countries.
But how would the effects of such a selfish behaviour play out? And how far removed from a show of solidarity would such a scenario be? Researchers in the group of Giovanni Sansavini, Professor of Reliability and Risk Engineering at ETH Zurich, have examined this using model calculations. One of the study’s key findings is that collaborating in solidarity is worthwhile. At the very least, it would allow European countries to avert drastic and involuntary energy demand curtailment.
Collaborating in solidarity means countries helping each other out when gas is in short supply and signing bilateral agreements to that effect. This would involve a country voluntarily lowering its energy demand in order to supply gas to other countries should they desperately need some. Only eight such agreements have been reached in Europe to date.
The alternative to collaborating in solidarity is acting selfishly. Several Central European countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands would be better off acting selfishly as they would then have more gas available. However, this would cause shortages in other countries. Hardest hit would be countries along the eastern edge of Europe: from Finland down through the Baltic States to the Balkans.
Redirected gas flows in Europe
The main reason for all of this is that the disappearance of Russia as a supplier caused a fundamental shift in Europe’s supply channels. Russia used to supply eastern European countries as well as Finland. Although Finland shares a border with Norway, a big producer of natural gas, there is no gas pipeline between these two Nordic countries.
Europe is now offsetting its need for Russian gas largely with liquefied natural gas (LNG), which arrives by sea chiefly from the US, Qatar and Nigeria. Most of the ports for handling LNG are found on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, with Spain being the largest transfer zone. Production in Norway remains high, as do imports from Algeria, reaching Europe through pipelines to Spain and Italy.
In other words, it’s now countries in Western Europe that are serving as the continent’s gateway to gas. And countries in the east and southeast suddenly find themselves at the end of the supply chain.
“The trouble is that Europe’s gas infrastructure wasn’t designed for such a shift,” says Paolo Gabrielli, a senior researcher in Sansavini’s group and co-author of the study. Cross-border pipelines are operating at maximum capacity, especially in Southeastern Europe. “This is why Southeastern Europe is particularly vulnerable to gas shortages and relies on agreements with other countries.” Gabrielli adds that existing bottlenecks can be removed by additional investments in the gas infrastructure.
Based on their results, the researchers are calling on policymakers to coordinate the distribution and consumption of gas at the international level. Moreover, private individuals and companies throughout Europe must be given greater incentives to effect a measured reduction in their gas consumption wherever possible – even when there is no acute shortage. This would help keep gas storage as full as possible so as to be prepared for a cold winter.
“Voluntarily reducing demand to distribute the burden evenly is far less painful than forcing a country to massively reduce its demand because there’s no energy available,” says Jacob Mannhardt, doctoral student in Sansavini's group and lead author of the study. “International collaboration together with anticipatory energy savings are the most cost-effective way of preventing a severe energy crisis.”
Reducing climate impact and dependence
In their study, the ETH researchers analysed the entire energy system by looking not just at gas but also at other energy sources and the electricity grid. This allowed them to calculate that turning off gas-fired power stations and instead generating more electricity through coal would offset 15 percent of the supply gap left by Russian natural gas. The downside would be climate damage: such a move alone would trigger a 5 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity and heating sector.
“We show that diversification in natural gas supply, and especially LNG imports, have stabilised Europe’s gas supply,” Gabrielli says. “But Europe must learn its lesson from this energy crisis, namely that it is dangerous to be dependent on foreign countries for its energy supply. Switching to a different foreign supplier merely shifts the dependency.”
To avoid damaging the climate and simply forging new dependencies, the researchers recommend channelling the current momentum into investing in domestic energy supply, expanding renewable technologies, pursuing electrification efforts, and ensuring electricity trading across Europe.