Can Germany function without Vladimir Putin’s gas? | Germany
The Ukraine crisis has plunged Germany into an intense debate about how it will heat its homes and power its industry in the future, summed up in the short question: can Europe’s largest economy function without gas from Vladimir Poutine ?
Green Federal Economy Minister Robert Habeck responded with a “yes, it is possible”, a day after Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was to deliver up to 70% from Russia. Germany’s gas needs. There are considerable doubts about whether the $11 billion project will ever go ahead.
But even before Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Thursday morning, NS2 was only a small part of the larger discussion that some say Germany has been far too slow to have. What is at stake is nothing less than the future of German – and by extension European – energy security.
Germany announced its withdrawal from nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and said in 2019 it would disconnect coal-fired power plants, leaving observers to wonder how the country planned to make its energy policy viable and future-proof . Skeptics have wondered how it makes sense for Germany to become so dependent on Russian gas when it should be distancing itself from Putin’s autocratic machinery. Until recently, the response from the top of the government was that this was an economic project, not a political one. The robotically repeated mantra now seems naive at best, and at worst, given the current turn of events, a self-defeating decision that helped fund Putin’s war.
Habeck admitted “we are facing turbulent days” as he promised on Wednesday that the government would provide relief if needed to offset the expected rise in gas prices. One of the government’s biggest struggles is whether it can deliver on its promise to switch to renewable energy sources in order to meet its climate target of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Gas is seen as the bridge vital in this endeavor, which, while ambitious by international standards, is seen by many climate experts as barely sufficient.
The import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) was considered as an option as part of a diversification strategy. However, this has been beset by numerous problems, including the lack of a terminal in Germany needed to handle LNG imports. The available LNG supplies could also not fully replace Russian gas and it is also an expensive alternative. Gas already comes from Norway, but these supplies cannot be increased as it is already producing at full capacity.
Leonhard Birnbaum, CEO of Germany’s biggest gas and electricity supplier, E.ON, said while the energy supply for this winter was secure, next year could be more difficult. “If Russian gas imports were to collapse completely, the immediate effect would not be so dramatic as we are almost at the end of the heating season. But next winter, we may not be able to meet the supply demands of all industrial customers. Some of them may need to turn off the power. It is utopian to believe that Russian gas can be completely replaced overnight by other sources,” he told Die Zeit.
Other critics said Germany had only itself to blame, after dwelling on its much-vaunted plans to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. A positive headline to emerge from the recent severe storms that battered much of northern Europe was the record amount of energy pumped into the grid by its wind turbines on Sunday. But it also served to underline the slow development of renewable energy.
Beyond Germany’s borders, the short-term answer would be simple: why not reverse the decisions, or at least extend the use of coal-fired power plants and temporarily restart nuclear reactors?
But these options are considered politically suicidal in Berlin – especially the reactivation of nuclear power plants (in addition to being highly impractical and disastrous from a legal point of view). Opposition to nuclear power was the main founder of the Greens party – of which two former leaders, Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, are now in government. Both have always opposed the pipeline.
There is no evidence that ordinary Germans are panicking, although heating installation companies say there has been a huge increase in inquiries about heat pumps from people wanting to find a alternative to gas central heating.
“In the short term, it will not be easy to move away from natural gas,” Hans-Martin Henning, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, told the Tagesspiegel. “But in the medium term, this must be part of the concept of accelerating the change of energy source in the heat sector and, where possible, electric heat pumps should be used as a means of becoming more independent of natural gas.”
Andreas Löschel, an energy economist, told the same newspaper that even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia had destroyed its own narrative about being a reliable supplier of cheap gas. “The confidence is no longer there,” he said. “Russia shot itself in the foot.”
Just days ago, at a press briefing with Scholz in Moscow, Putin praised fellow Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor turned lobbyist for Gazprom, saying he was responsible for negotiating generous fuel rates. It was one of Schröder’s last acts in office in 2005 to sign the NS2 deal before he was named chairman of the company behind it.
Calls grew on Thursday for the government to scrap Schröder’s privileges as former chancellor, including an office and staff, amid reports they would cost the taxpayer more than €400,000 (£344,244) per year, in addition to its considerable income from corporate lobbying. including Rosneft and Gazprom. An online petition said a “former chancellor who is funded by autocrats and makes himself dependent on them, thus ridiculing German interests, should no longer be funded by the German taxpayer”. Some politicians have called for him to be added to the list of people subject to sanctions.
Writing on the LinkedIn platform, Schröder said that although “many mistakes” had “been made on both sides” in relations between the West and Russia, Russia’s “security interests did not justify its intervention by military means”. He called on the Russian government to “end the suffering of the Ukrainian people as soon as possible”. He also warned against “severing the remaining political, economic and societal ties” between Europe and Russia.