The largest gas storage facility in Western Europe is located in Lower Saxony, northern Germany, 2,000 meters underground. It is the size of 910 football fields and can accommodate the annual natural gas consumption of approximately two million single-family homes. “Big. Bigger. Rehden.” is the slogan on the website of the company that operates it. The installation plays a central role in supply security for Germany and Europe.
Astora is a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom and owns more than a third of all German gas storage facilities. All sites have one thing in common: they are currently almost empty with levels below 10% or less capacity.
Economy Minister Robert Habeck assumes the storage facilities were “systematically emptied” intentionally in order to drive up gas prices, but also to generate political pressure.
A new law to guarantee gas reserves
Around 55% of Germany’s gas imports come from Russia. In addition, 50% coal and about 30% oil. While Germany has a strategic oil reserve, which by law must last 90 days, such a requirement does not exist for gas and coal. Here, only the companies themselves decide on their reserves.
It has now become clear that this was a mistake and the Ministry of Economy wants to push through legal changes as soon as possible. First, for gas: storage facilities must be filled to at least 80% capacity by October, 90% by December and always at least 40% by February of any given year .
The law must be presented to the German parliament, the Bundestag, in good time so that it can come into force on May 1, 2022. “This is necessary to ensure that we have until the summer to fill the storage facilities” , according to a statement from the Ministry of Economy. But what if this is impossible, while Moscow orders to reduce or even stop energy supplies?
Germany set to shut down its three remaining nuclear reactors by the end of 2022
Stop phasing out coal and nuclear?
A fervent debate has ensued in government circles; but in times of crisis many things are conceivable that otherwise would not have seemed possible. For example, postponing the exit from nuclear power. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Germany decided to continue with its plan to close all its nuclear power plants by 2022. The last three nuclear power plants are still in operation.
At the same time, a decision was made to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2038 at the latest.
But worries about Germany’s energy security now call everything into question. Economics ministers from Germany’s 16 states have already called for a review of longer operating times for coal and nuclear power plants. “All options must be on the table,” said Economy and Energy Minister Andreas Pinkwart of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
Pinkwart is a member of the business-oriented Liberal Democratic Party (FDP). Getting out of nuclear power has always been a thorn in the side of the FDP. But there are also regional interests. NRW has 52 power stations and the largest number of coal-fired power stations in all of Germany. NRW is also one of four German states with large lignite mining areas. The premiers of these states are also questioning an accelerated coal phase-out.
Energy giant RWE operates a coal-fired power plant as well as wind turbines in North Rhine-Westphalia
“Everything is on the table,” according to Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck. The Green Party politician is in a very difficult position. It is his role as a government minister to make securing the energy supply his top priority. On the other hand, phasing out coal in the face of climate change is a central issue for his environmentalist Green Party, and phasing out nuclear power has been part of the party’s political identity since its founding.
Habeck says he will not fight an expansion of nuclear power “for ideological reasons”. However, he said, preparations for the shutdown of nuclear power plants are already so advanced that continued operation is not possible for safety reasons. According to the operating companies Eon, RWE and EnBW, it would be technically difficult to obtain suitable fuel rods quickly. There is also a shortage of specialized personnel.
Even if it were decided that the nuclear power plants should remain operational, it would take a year and a half before the reactors could produce electricity again, according to NRW Economy Minister Pinkwart. For technical reasons, they should still be stopped at the end of the year and then restarted to be operational again in winter 2023/2024 at the earliest, he specifies.
Economy Minister Robert Habeck promised to look at all options
To replace Russian energy supplies in the short term, the Ministry of Economy plans to buy more gas from other countries, for example in the Arab world. Additionally, LNG, or liquefied natural gas, must be imported from the United States.
This will be delivered by sea. Germany wants to build two terminals as quickly as possible on the North Sea coast, in Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven. The latter must be mobile, located on the water, and the other permanently installed on land. The problem: Approval procedures alone are expected to take between two and five years.
LNG is considered “dirty” because it is produced by environmentally harmful fracking. It is also more expensive than Russian natural gas. But on the road to climate neutrality, gas has so far played a crucial role as an energy carrier for the transition period. And modern gas-fired power plants emit less CO2 than coal-fired power plants.
Economy Minister Habeck will meet this week in the United States on the purchase of LNG, but also in general on the consequences of sanctions, security policy and energy security. But the current crisis is also an opportunity for environmentalists to massively push the expansion of green electricity. “The most important key to our energy sovereignty is the global transformation towards more renewable energy and greater energy efficiency,” Habeck said before leaving for the United States. “Of course we are discussing the issue of energy security in the transatlantic alliance.”
But in Germany’s coalition government, even FDP party leader and German finance minister Christian Lindner has changed his mind. He now calls renewable energies “the energies of freedom”. Chancellor Olaf Scholz called them “crucial to our security”. In parliament on Sunday, he confirmed: “The faster we move forward in expanding renewable energy, the better.”
Germany plans floating LNG terminal in Brunsbüttel
A set of laws is expected to come into force as early as July to allow full supply of electricity from renewable sources by 2035. The law is to state that the expansion is in the “overriding public interest and serves public safety”.
To achieve this, however, capabilities will need to be significantly expanded. In the case of wind power, capacity is expected to double to 110 gigawatts by 2030. Solar power is expected to more than triple to 200 gigawatts. To convince those who oppose the construction of more wind turbines in their neighborhood, it is planned to allow municipalities to participate financially in wind farms.
This is all pie in the sky. In the short term, it will not be possible to compensate for the lack of Russian energy supply. What is certain is that energy prices will continue to rise as supplies become scarce. The German government therefore wants to abolish the tax that electricity customers used to help finance the expansion of renewable energy.
It will tear another hole in the state’s already increasingly burdened coffers, resulting in an estimated shortfall of 1.1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) per month.
This article was originally written in German.
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