Russia threatens to cut gas; Germany draws up contingency plans
“It’s about not being blackmailed [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and becoming energy self-sufficient,” Krogmann said. “It’s about protecting the climate. And this is to react to the massive increase in prices.
Europe braces for gas ‘nightmare’ as pipeline from Russia shuts down
It’s part of a desperate scramble across Europe to cut energy use in a summer of skyrocketing temperatures and prices and to hoard supplies of natural gas before the freezing winter cold – in anticipation of Russia’s complete gas shutdown.
The European Commission on Wednesday proposed a plan to reduce gas demand by 15% from August 1 to March 1.
“We have to be proactive. We must prepare for a possible complete disruption of Russian gas. And that’s a likely scenario. This is what we have seen in the past,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said when presenting the plan.
It asks Member States to switch from gas to alternative fuels, encourages industries to reduce their consumption and describes ways for consumers to save on heating and cooling.
“Energy saved in summer is energy available for winter,” reads a European Commission press release on the proposal.
Russia has already stopped sending gas to the Baltic States and Poland, Bulgaria and Finland and flows to Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy have been reduced. EU officials believe Russia could stop imports as early as this year.
This would have an impact across the EU and ripple effects around the world. But Germany’s heavy reliance on Russian gas makes it particularly vulnerable to disruption.
Despite a rush to diversify, Berlin remains at the mercy of the whims of Moscow, which supplies 30% of the natural gas used for Germany’s electricity generation and home heating.
Concern is high this week that Moscow may decide not to reconnect Nord Stream 1, the main gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, after the 10 days of maintenance scheduled for Thursday. State-run Russian gas giant Gazprom has warned some European customers that it can no longer guarantee supplies to the continent amid war. But on Tuesday, Putin told reporters that “Gazprom has fulfilled, is fulfilling and will fully fulfill its obligations.”
Russian Gazprom sends force majeure letter to European customers
While waiting to see how it goes, Germany is developing emergency plans.
It is temporarily falling back on coal-fired power plants and is even considering keeping some nuclear plants online – something the government had fiercely resisted.
An extreme measure, which experts say could be triggered in the event of a Nord Stream 1 shutdown, would be to cut off some non-essential industries from gas supply, with significant ramifications for Europe’s biggest economy.
“When Putin cuts off the gas supply, he uses energy as a weapon,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote in an op-ed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Monday. “Even the Soviet Union didn’t do this during the Cold War,” he added.
The stability of Russian gas flows during the Cold War was an oft-repeated argument of Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, who oversaw an increase in German dependence on Russian energy, despite Russian belligerence over it. beyond its borders.
But even before the war in Ukraine, Germany’s gas storage facilities, which hold the largest volume in the EU, were running out. Stockpiling levels in February were less than a third – partly the result of what many experts say was an intentional move by the Kremlin as it prepared for war.
Is nuclear energy green? France and Germany are on opposite sides.
Storage was at “historic lows” between the end of last year and February, said Philipp Heilmaier, head of the future energy supply division at the German Energy Agency, a consultancy partially funded by the state.
The Rehden storage facility – one of the largest in Western Europe, with a storage capacity of over 4 billion cubic meters of gas – was less than 1% full. The facility was controlled by a subsidiary of Gazprom.
Storage levels have since rebounded to 64.6% overall and 32.4% in Rehden, which is now run by a government trust. But efforts to refuel stalled after Gazprom cut supplies arriving by Nord Stream 1 to 40% capacity in June. And there are concerns that we can meet the government’s target of overall storage levels of 80% by October 1 and 90% by November 1.
“At present, gas storage facilities are partially exhausted,” the Federal Network Agency, Germany’s electricity and gas regulator, said in a report last week. “This development makes it difficult to achieve necessary storage levels for the winter and reduces reserves for a gas shortage situation.”
And this, despite a drop in consumption. In the first five months of the year, Germans used 14% less gas compared to the previous year, according to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries. The association attributed this partly to a milder winter, but also to consumer behavior in response to a combination of higher prices and calls to save energy.
Russia’s grip on gas could send Europe back to coal
Markus Bauer-Schneider, 48, who lives in Berlin with his partner and baby, said he was paying more attention to his energy consumption, not only because of rising costs, but also because supply problems.
“We live in an old building, and I’m already pretty sure that we’ll only use half of our living space in the winter,” he said. “That’s quite a lot of square meters, so we won’t be heating the living room in the winter. It’s not worth it anymore. »
The capital is still working out its energy-saving plans, with discussions over whether to turn off the lights of the Brandenburg Gate monument and 200 public buildings after midnight, turn off streetlights and turn off traffic lights at night. But Berlin also lives up to its reputation for inefficiency. The Tagesspiegel newspaper reported that the city operates 1,400 gas streetlights day and night because the timer mechanism is broken.
Bauer-Schneider said he was ready to make sacrifices. “We shouldn’t receive gasoline from such a madman,” he said, referring to Putin. “So you have to cut back.”
Others are not yet willing to give up small luxuries.
“For me, a bathtub is an absolute quality of life,” said Michael von Wittke, 44, who has attested that he already has a very low carbon footprint. “I can lie in it for an hour or two, then I would even add twice as much hot water. For me, it is one of the foundations of my quality of life. I will only change this in very special circumstances.
Yet Jens Suedekum, professor of economics at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf and adviser to the German government on climate and energy, said that to get through the winter without drastic government intervention in the energy market , consumers need to reduce supply in the short term. term.
Given current storage levels, gas demand from private households must drop by at least 10%, he said, although with a 15-20% reduction the “possibility of disaster would be much greater. weak”.
“Information campaigns and ‘please’ are not enough,” he said. “Some people you could reach, but the vast majority need price signals to reduce demand.”
Germany has so far shielded consumers from the full extent of price hikes – which otherwise would have tripled or quadrupled energy bills. Germans currently employed are entitled to a one-off payment of 300 euros in September as compensation for their increased energy costs.
But experts say further price increases passed on to consumers should be accompanied by much greater financial protection for vulnerable households.
Already, to the dismay of social organisations, some cities are planning massive “warming centres” during the winter for vulnerable people in public buildings such as leisure centres.
In the town of Ludwigsburg, just north of Stuttgart, the district fire chief said 5,000 sleeping bags and beds were being prepared. “We want to be prepared,” he told FAZ newspaper.
If the gas is restored on Thursday it will be a “huge relief”, said Suedekum, the economics professor, “at least for a little while”.
But even then, uncertainty is likely to return.
“The long-term answer is renewables,” he said. “It’s the ultimate answer to all those energy problems.”
Emily Rauhala and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.