The German government is currently bracing itself for a period without Russian energy supplies. All ideas are on the table, even extending the lifespans of nuclear power plants that are slated to close this year. Will energy security now trump climate protection?
A liquid natural gas tanker ship moored at a terminal-Foto: Wojciech Wrzesien / Shutterstock
The Elbe River flows by on one side of gate to the locks. It’s less than 40 nautical miles to the port of Hamburg and the river here flows out toward the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side of the mighty steel gate is the beginning of the Kiel Canal, the world’s busiest artificial waterway. Brunsbüttel is the perfect location for a port. It’s an ideal unloading point for LNG tankers from all over the world, especially from the United States, Australia and Qatar.
The idea for what has been dubbed a “national LNG terminal” in Brunsbüttel dates back to 2015, and a project company was formed in 2018. Today, sheep still graze in front of the planned site.
Apart from local politicians and environmental protection associations, who filed a lawsuit against the proposed project, few have shown much interest in the project in recent years. Instead, federal politicians have seemed fixated on a different energy project: another gas pipeline to Russia, Nord Stream 2. Who needs LNG if you have Moscow?
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the situation has changed dramatically. Nord Stream 2 is dead, and the company behind the project has laid off all its staff. And now, two LNG terminals are to be built, regardless of the cost. In addition to Brunsbüttel, Wilhelmshaven and Stade are also under discussion as potential terminal sites.
There is a lot of talk these days about a “watershed,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it, but in few other areas will the old order have to change as fundamentally as in energy supply. For decades, Germany has followed a rather risky path: On the one hand, it imported more and more gas, oil and coal from Russia. On the other, it has been shutting down its own coal and nuclear power plants in order to drive forward Germany’s transition to clean energies.
The World’s Dumbest Energy Policy?
In countries that have long viewed their energy supply as an element of national security instead of seeing it exclusively through the lens of climate policy alone, that path triggered a fair amount of head scratching. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal disparaged Germany as having “the world’s dumbest energy policy.”
Until just a few weeks ago, Berlin tended to simply deflect such criticism. But now it is suddenly no longer even certain whether or how people in Germany will be able to heat homes next winter, or how industrial companies will keep their factories running. Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck of the Green Party is seriously considering banning private households from installing new gas heaters.
Around a quarter of total energy consumption in Germany is currently covered by gas, oil and coal from Russia. But Germany needs to eliminate this dependence as quickly as possible, that much is clear.
The hunt for alternatives has taken on a feverish pace, and no possibilities are being rule out, at least not in the short term, including nuclear energy, coal and liquified natural gas. Habeck has stated that the “emphasis will be on pragmatism and not political considerations.” The fact that the Green politician has said he would not “ideologically oppose” further use of nuclear energy is but one indicator of how precarious the situation has become.
The next six months will determine how Germany gets through the next winter. That’s the amount of time the federal government now has to fill gas storage reserves while avoiding any pitfalls along the way. After all, if the gas comes from Qatar rather than Russia in the future, aren’t you just swapping out one autocratic regime for another?
But the decisive question is this: Has this war temporarily put the brakes on climate protection, or will it perhaps even give a boost to Germany’s long-term transition to clean energies, because the country has no choice but to focus even more radically and quickly on wide-reaching self-sufficiency with wind, sun and hydrogen? German Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) has described these as “freedom energies.”
Gas and Oil
Germany is addicted to natural gas. Of the 40.6 million homes in the country, nearly half are heated using natural gas. For many industries, it is also the most important source of energy.
According to the federal government’s original plan, this dependence was to become even greater in the coming years. Gas-fired power plants were to facilitate the transition to clean energies, acting as a bridge technology after the phase-out of nuclear power and coal until the country has sufficient supplies of renewable energy. This would require dozens of new gas-fired power plants, financed by private industry.
The problem with those plans, though, is that they can only work with Russian participation. Germany imports 55 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia. And ever since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, it has been abundantly obvious that such a reliance on the Kremlin is risky and unwise.
That, though, did nothing to diminish Germany’s fixation on Russian energy in recent years. On the contrary, Moscow is also Germany’s No. 1 supplier of oil, by far. Around one-third of the oil burned in this country comes from Russia. It’s easy enough to obtain crude oil from other countries, but it will be a lot more expensive.
This overreliance is now coming back to haunt the German government, despite repeated warnings from its own ministries. In 2006, for example, the Defense Ministry wrote: “Energy issues will play an increasingly important role in future global security.”
The German naivete on the issue is striking, exemplified by the largest gas storage facility in Western Europe, located near Diepholz in the state of Lower Saxony, some 2,000 meters underground. There is space there for 4.4 billion cubic meters of gas, enough to supply more than 2 million households with heat for a year. In 2015, Russian energy giant Gazprom acquired the storage facility, along with others, a deal that was approved by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led a coalition with the SPD at the time.
Neither Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier nor Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (both of the SPD) seemed overly concerned at the time the deal was signed by the fact that Germany’s reserve levels would essentially henceforth be controlled by Moscow. Berlin argued that because the storage facilities were in Germany, the country’s energy supply was not at risk.
Reality has taught those involved otherwise. Now, the storage facility is only at 28 percent of capacity while others are almost completely empty. “This primarily affects those caverns that are operated by Gazprom or companies close to Gazprom,” says Oliver Krischer of the Green Party, the state secretary in the Federal Economics Ministry responsible for the issue. Few in Berlin consider this to be a coincidence.
Which is why Economy Minister Habeck is quickly preparing a new law requiring that all gas storage facilities must always be 80 percent full by Oct. 1 of each year. By Feb. 1, when the winter heating season slowly starts winding down, 40 percent should still be available. It is just one of the many about-faces that have been made in recent days. From this point on, the construction of the liquified natural gas terminals has top priority.
The German government is eyeing the United States and Qatar, in particular, as potential suppliers and wants to negotiate long-term supply contracts with the emirate. These supplies would replace Russian natural gas to a large extent. The plans for the terminal in Stade envisage a capacity of 12 billion cubic meters a year. Germany currently consumers around 100 billion cubic meters per year.
The facilities are complex and technically demanding. They must convert the liquified gas, which is cooled down to minus 162 degrees Celsius and highly compressed for transport in special ships, back into regular natural gas. It is estimated that construction of the terminals will take four years to complete.
Until then, Germany will have to rely on other access points. A total of 26 LNG plants exist across the European Union, and even if their entire capacities were tapped, that would have been enough for barely 40 percent of Europe’s gas demand in January, the energy information service ICIS has calculated.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, there are few alternatives but to resort to energy sources that have already been declared dead in Germany.
Coal and Nuclear Power
Habeck knew that taking control of the Economy Ministry would be challenging. But never did he think he would be saying things like: “In the short term, to be prepared for the worst, we may have to keep coal plants in reserve, maybe even run them.” The Economy Ministry has begun looking for land to be used for a national coal reserve that could provide enough electricity and heat for the entire country for 30 days of winter. Suddenly, the government coalition’s plans to bring forward Germany’s coal phase-out from 2038 to 2030 are in doubt.
Just under 28 percent of the electricity generated in Germany came from coal-fired power plants in 2021. Some of that coal needs to be imported, and half of it comes from Russia. But it can easily be replaced – there are a billion tons on the global market.
Presumably, a number of coal-fired power plants would have to remain standing beyond 2030, according to the Economy Ministry. They are not intended for operation, but to be available as reserves if needed. In light of the war, energy utility company Vattenfall has announced it will halt preparations to dismantle a coal-fired plant in the town of Moorburg, at least for now.
Berlin is even considering extending the operating lives of nuclear power plants. Currently, only three nuclear power plants remain in operation in Germany: Isar 2 near Landshut (operated by E.on subsidiary PreussenElektra), Emsland near Lingen (operated by RWE) and Neckarwestheim 2 in the Heilbronn district (operated by EnBW). All three are slated to be taken offline by the end of the year.
Continuing to operate the plants would be complicated. “I think it’s impossible to just flip the switch in such a short period of time and say: We’ll run them for another five years,” says Wolfgang Renneberg. The 71-year-old physicist knows the subject like no other, having served as the head of nuclear supervision at the German Environment Ministry from 1998 to 2009. He sees three hurdles to continued operation: fuel, skilled personnel and safety aspects.
Fuel rods are the heart of every nuclear power plant, but German power plant operators haven’t ordered new fuel rods in years. “Operators are likely to have optimized their power plants to burn off as many of the rods as possible by Dec. 31,” Renneberg says.
And they can’t be ordered for overnight delivery – and not even months in advance. Nuclear power plants could theoretically continue to operate for some time with the old fuel rods, provided lawmakers allow such a thing. Experts speak of “stretch-out operations.” But doing so presupposed the availability of qualified personnel. Many nuclear power plant workers will change jobs or take early retirement at the end of the year. Key positions are difficult to replace.
The third hurdle is security. “There would have to be extensive safety testing, especially for longer continued operations,” says Renneberg. “Does the technology still meet the requirements? What retrofits are needed? That’s going to take time and cost a lot of money.”
Some experts consider nuclear power plants to be unsuitable for replacing gas-fired power plants, anyway. Nuclear power plants can’t be started up and shut back down quickly. They are designed for continuous operation. It would probably make more sense to just buy nuclear power from abroad.
In the long term, Habeck sees no alternative to renewable energies and green hydrogen, anyway. He has declared the construction of wind turbines and solar panels a “matter of national security.”
Before the invasion, the plan had been to provide almost all the electricity in Germany through wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric plants by the mid-2040s. Now, that deadline has been moved up to 2035.
But is that really realistic? The grand coalition government pairing Angela Merkel’s conservatives with the SPD dragged its feet on the expansion of renewable energies for many years, and recently, there have been few signs of the industry getting any kind of jumpstart. On Feb. 28, the last German factory for rotor blades closed in Rostock. Many other German wind energy companies have gone bankrupt, and 60,000 jobs have been lost. In the once so proud solar industry, only about one-third of the former 156,000 jobs remain.
Since taking office, the German government has endeavored to inject new momentum into the expansion. It is increasing subsidies, making new land available for green power plants, bundling environmental reviews and cutting red tape. For offshore wind farms alone, planning procedures are to be accelerated by several years.
“The things that are getting ramped up now are unlikely to show any significant effect until 2023 or 2024 at the earliest,” says Carsten Körnig, head of the German Solar Energy Association, damping expectations a bit. Even the Economy Ministry assumes that expansion won’t be at full speed until 2028.
Even more serious are the new dependencies that Germany has created, especially in the solar sector, where the supply chain is almost completely dominated by China. The People’s Republic covers 83 percent of the global demand for cells and three quarters of the global market demand for solar panels. A full 77 percent of supplies of polysilicon, the primary raw material used in the solar photovoltaic industry, comes from China.
“If Russia and China were to join forces right now, they could squash our energy supply,” says Gunter Erfurt, the head of the Swiss company Meyer Burger, the last company still producing a significant amount of solar cells and panels in Germany. “Europe is pretty much trapped energy-wise right now.”
Erfurt wants to bring solar manufacturing back to Europe. And he has ambitious plans. “We could theoretically create the first 5,000 megawatts in the next 12 to 18 months,” he says. That is, if approval procedures are accelerated and he receives the necessary capital. Solar Energy Association head Körnig considers autonomous solar production in Germany to be realistic in 2040 at the earliest.
Habeck, though, isn’t allowing any of that to put him off. He is counting on the Europeans finally working together to take charge of their energy supply. At the same time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and several other European officials have been on a recent global shopping spree of sorts, searching for sufficient natural gas for EU member states. European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson has ordered liquified natural gas in Azerbaijan and Algeria. And European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager made purchases in Nigeria. Von der Leyen also negotiated in the U.S. “Our unity is our strength,” she announced. Perhaps this time it will be more than just words.