19 Jun 2020, 14:00

Germany’s dependence on imported fossil fuels

In the midst of the Energiewende, Germany relies still heavily on imports of fossil fuels, as its domestic resources are largely depleted, or their extraction is too costly. This factsheet provides an overview of the current status of Germany’s oil, gas and coal consumption, as well as its main suppliers, and discusses Europe’s dependence on imported energy. [Update with latest data available in June 2020.]

Almost 60 percent of the EU’s energy needs (excluding the UK) were met by net imports in 2018. Germany’s energy import dependency was still higher at 63.6 percent – a slight decrease compared to the previous year’s 64 percent.

With an increasingly integrated European energy market, the significance of a country-focused analysis of import dependence will decline, and an EU-wide one will become more important.

Map shows energy import dependency in European countries in 2018. Source: eurostat.
Energy import dependency in European countries in 2018 in percent of energy needs covered by net imports. Source: eurostat 2020.

What impact will the Energiewende have on energy imports?

Overall dependence on energy imports will change dramatically for some countries as the energy transition progresses. The planned decarbonisation of all sectors by 2050 should all but eliminate fossil fuels from Germany’s energy consumption. On the path to climate neutrality by mid-century, the German government has introduced interim greenhouse gas emission targets for all sectors for the year 2030 with the 2019 climate action law.

As fossil oil and gas are being phased out, many see the need to partly replace them with synthetic fuels. Renewable electricity is converted into hydrogen, methane or synthetic petrol (power-to-x) to serve as energy sources, for example in industry, road freight transport, shipping or seasonal energy storage. According to several studies and politicians, Germany will have to import significant amounts of these green fuels, because space for generating electricity from renewables is limited in the country and power-to-x fuels could be produced significantly cheaper in other regions of the world.

European Union’s import dependence

The EU produces large parts of its energy domestically, with about a third from renewables and nuclear each, and the rest mostly solid fuels like hard coal and lignite, and some natural gas and crude oil. Still, most energy needs (about 60%) are met with imports.

Almost two-thirds of the EU’s energy imports in 2018 were petroleum products, followed by gas (24%) and solid fossil fuels (8%). Russia was the main extra-EU supplier in all three categories (30% petroleum, 40% gas and 42% solid fossil fuels), followed by Norway for crude oil and natural gas.

Graph shows 2018 fossil fuel imports of European Union. Source: eurostat 2020.
Source: eurostat 2020.

Energy import patterns vary widely across the EU member states. While more than 80 percent of imports in countries such as Malta, Greece and Sweden are petroleum products, over a third is gas in Hungary, Austria and Italy. The total import dependency rate in 2018 ranged from 0.7 percent (Estonia) to more than 90 percent in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta.

In 2018, the EU member state by far the least dependent on energy imports was Estonia (0.7%), followed by Denmark (24%), Romania (24%) and Sweden (29%). Estonia’s high degree of energy self-sufficiency is based on domestically produced oil shale, an energy-rich sedimentary rock that can be either burned for heat and power generation or used for producing liquid fuels, according to the 2019 International Energy Agency (IEA) country report.

Graph shows: Comparison of use of primary energy sources and the share of domestic production and imports 2008 and 2018 for Germany. Source: BGR (2020)

Germany - OIL

Oil consumption peaked at the end of the 1970s, but it is still Germany’s most important primary energy source. Mineral oil covered 35.3 percent of Germany’s primary energy use in 2019. Oil was mostly used as a transportation fuel, and only a small fraction was used for power production.

According to the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), about 98 percent of Germany’s primary consumption of mineral oil had to be imported in 2018. The country’s domestic crude oil output from 51 oilfields amounted to 2 million tonnes that year. Germany imported 85.2 million tonnes of crude oil (the country also imports additional mineral oil products). Russia was by far the largest supplier in 2018, delivering 31 million tonnes, or about 36 percent of oil imports. Norway provided 10 million tonnes and Libya and Kazakhstan each about 7 million tonnes. In total, 29 countries supplied oil to Germany.

What impact will the Energiewende have on oil imports?

Transport accounts for most of Germany’s oil consumption, so the transition to renewables, which has largely been focused on electricity, has had little impact so far. Still, the energy transition has reduced the already minor role of oil in power generation (0.9 percent share in 2019 gross power production), because cheap, renewable energy has crowded out oil-based generation.

The Climate Action Law stipulates that the transport sector must reduce emissions by about 42 percent by 2030 compared to 1990, which means oil use must decrease significantly. However, greenhouse gas emissions in transport in 2019 were still at 1990 levels.

The government aims to reduce final energy consumption in transport to 90 percent of 2005 levels by 2020 and to 60 percent by 2050 with the help of more efficient engines. However, consumption has actually increased. If electric cars catch on as the government hopes, renewables will be able to supply more of the energy required for transport, reducing Germany’s dependence on oil imports. However, for certain modes of transport – such as freight trucks – imports of synthetic fuels could become necessary.

Germany - GAS

Gas covered around a quarter of Germany’s primary energy use in 2019, making it the country’s second most important energy source. Germany is among the world’s biggest natural gas importers and around 94 percent of its gas consumption is met by imports, according to the BGR. In 2018, the country produced 7 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas, but according to geologists, the fields are nearing depletion. Domestic natural gas production has been falling since 2004 and will likely cease altogether in the course of the 2020s. Strict regulations make substantial use of fracking highly unlikely for now.

Germany imported 5,419 petajoules (PJ) of natural gas in 2019, according to the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA). This is an increase of 22 percent over the previous year. The country exported 2,821 PJ in 2019. Due to data privacy regulations, BAFA stopped publishing import volumes by country in 2016. However, the economy ministry says that Russia, Norway and the Netherlands continue to supply “large amounts.” In 2015, 35 percent of gas imports came from Russia, 34 percent from Norway and 29 percent from the Netherlands. In July 2018, an economy ministry spokesperson put Russia’s share in German natural gas imports at “about 40 percent.”

Gas is imported to Germany exclusively by using pipelines. The construction of Gazprom’s contentious Russian-German Baltic Sea pipeline project Nord Stream 2 is underway, but has faced intense opposition from Germany’s European partners and the United States. Sanctions have halted progress for months, but by mid-2020 construction was in the final stretch [Also read the factsheet Gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 links Germany to Russia, but splits Europe]

Germany currently has no infrastructure for the direct import of liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, the country is planning to set up an LNG infrastructure and can currently be supplied via terminals in neighbouring countries, where the liquid is regasified and pushed into the natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

What impact will the Energiewende have on gas imports?

Currently, most of the gas is used in the industrial sector (e.g. for power and heat supply, or in chemical processes), followed by private households (mostly heating), public power and heating supply, manufacturing and trade. Natural gas consumption in transport is marginal. The lion's share of gas is burned to produce heat, and only a fraction is used to produce electricity.

Many experts see natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon economy because it produces much less CO₂ emissions when combusted than either coal or oil. However, fugitive emissions, like the leakage of methane during production and transportation, need to be taken into account to evaluate total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Gas complements fluctuating power supply from renewables rather well, because modern gas-fired power stations (unlike coal) can switch from idle to full output within minutes if necessary.

The German government has said that the planned exit from nuclear and coal-fired power generation means that mid-term gas demand will increase. However, many analysts doubt that total natural gas demand will rise during the energy transition as efficiency increases and renewables, storage and ultimately renewables-based gases (such as green hydrogen) will cover more and more of the energy needs across Europe. Projections for future EU and German gas demand vary widely, many foreseeing a decrease.

Power-to-gas as a way of converting electrical energy into methane or hydrogen for direct use or the long-term storage of renewable power have only been tested in pilot projects and have yet to be used on a larger scale. The federal government strongly bets on green hydrogen in its quest for climate neutrality, and says much of it will have to be imported. In a 2018 analysis, think tanks Agora Energiewende and Agora Verkehrswende also said that Germany would need the well-directed use of power-based synthetic fuels, including gas, in connection with a phase-out of conventional oil and natural gas to reach its long-term climate targets. The think tanks agree that large amounts must be imported.

Germany - COAL

Germany’s largest source of domestic fossil fuel is coal, but its consumption decreased dramatically in 2019 and the first months of 2020.

Germany still extracts lignite (or brown coal) from opencast mines for power production on a large scale – 166.3 million tonnes in 2018 - and imports very little. Germany is the world’s biggest producer of lignite – which emits particularly high levels of CO₂ – and still has extensive deposits. Lignite covered about 9 percent of Germany’s primary energy use in 2019. Most is burned for power generation (19% of Germany’s gross electricity production in 2019) or district heating.

Due to unfavourable geological conditions, German hard coal is not competitive on the international market, and subsidised hard coal mining ended in 2018. While still extracting in two – now closed – mines 2.6 million tonnes in 2018, Germany now has to import all the hard coal it uses. It is mainly used by the energy sector and for steel production. (See the CLEW factsheet on coal for more details).

In 2018, Germany imported 46.6 million tonnes, or 94 percent of the hard coal it consumed. Its leading coal suppliers were Russia (40.8%), the United States (20.9%) and Colombia (8.1%). Hard coal covered 9 percent of Germany’s primary energy use in 2019. Most is burned for power generation (9% of gross electricity in 2019).

What impact will the Energiewende have on coal imports?

The government has decided to phase out coal by 2038 at the latest. It has proposed a shutdown timetable for lignite plants and the introduction of auctions for remuneration for switching off hard coal plants. Disputes about certain aspects and the coronavirus crisis have held up the legislative process in parliament, but MPs are expected to approve the coal exit law by mid-2020.

However, there are also calls for a more market-driven coal exit, which experts say could happen much sooner than 2038 due to unfavourable conditions, such as a high carbon price in the EU ETS or low wholesale natural gas prices.

In the past, critics of Germany’s current push to reduce the use of CO2-intensive lignite have said the country should not abandon its only sizeable domestic energy source. Mining union IG BCE, for example, warned in 2015 that the Energiewende can only succeed if Germany doesn’t play “Russian roulette” with its supply security. The union argued that “domestic energy sources ensure German companies don’t become even more dependent on price and supply fluctuations on world markets. Our lignite can guarantee this in a balanced energy mix.”

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