The situation is serious - that’s been clear since German Minister of Economics Robert Habeck declared the early warning stage of the natural gas emergency plan due to the war in Ukraine in late March and called on people to save energy. To date, pipelines from Russia have supplied more than half of Germany's natural gas imports. But now, we’re even discussing a return to brown coal or keeping nuclear energy and seeing an unprecedented speed-up of approvals and construction of LNG or LPG terminals and the pipelines to go along off the German coast and onshore. The reason is that there’s a long way to go till we can draw all our energy from renewables. Till that happens, how can Germany get enough gas?
"Domestic production of natural gas covers just six percent of the demand," says Professor Dr. Oliver Weidlich of the Institute of Applied Geosciences at Technische Universität Berlin, Engineering Geology Department, "and Germany's largest natural gas storage facility, Rehden in Lower Saxony, south of Bremen, is currently less than ten percent full. It’s operated by Astora. The other German gas storage facilities - one is in Rüdersdorf near Berlin - are also below their ideal levels." This has both political and technical reasons, he explains. Siberian gas goes through four pipelines, including Yamal and Nord Stream 1, which pump gas at maximum capacity. It's a tug of war: Neither can Germany work without Russian gas, nor can Russia say no to gas rubles.
"The energy transition from fossil fuels towards alternative sources and environment-friendly hydrogen is inevitable. The IPCC reports have repeatedly shown this quite clearly," Weidlich says. "It’s just that you can't switch gas and oil production on and off like a lamp. It’s technically very complex and therefore takes a long time. Other potential suppliers, including the USA, are reluctant to ramp up their production during the high-price phase triggered by the current war. Because should the price drop again, they'll be risking bankruptcy."
Even though Lower Saxony, Germany's most important gas producer, produced around 5.3 billion cubic meters of raw gas in 2020, Germany's natural gas reserves are meager. Völkersen in Lower Saxony, one of the largest deposits, is 80 percent depleted, Weidlich says. He explains: "A significant amount that is not exploitable always remains in the deposits. And when the pressure drops, the rock subsides, resulting in earthquakes; this has happened frequently around Völkersen, and also around Groningen in the Netherlands." The other German core areas, the Upper Rhine Plain, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the Molasse region north of the Alps, also have only residual amounts left and may lack modern infrastructure. "However, these gas volumes also wouldn’t be enough to keep industries such as steel, cement or chemicals going, which are particularly affected. These reserves are just nice to have, a little extra." Residential and industrial construction, food and medical manufacturing - the entire value chain would collapse like dominoes.
Norway is still the second-biggest source of gas, followed by the Netherlands. However, both would need to expand their infrastructure to replace Russian gas, be it LNG terminals for liquefied gas in the North Sea or pipelines that transport liquefied gas from the LNG terminals on the Atlantic coast to Germany. Other large reserves are in North Africa, which lacks powerful pipelines, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.
"The world’s largest gas field, 'North Field,' is in Qatar, which Robert Habeck has now started negotiations with, and partly in Iran," explains Weidlich, who has extensive experience from projects worldwide, especially in the Middle East.
"Although renewables are inevitable if we want to meet the 1.5-degree target, we’ll stay dependent on fossil fuels for a long time to come," he concludes. "We can't switch to renewable energy that quick, if we want to have all people in our country on board." Weidlich therefore supports renewed efforts towards CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technologies: "As a geologist, I see filtering and liquefying carbon dioxide directly from industrial waste gases, as well as safely injecting it into underground porous rock, for example in the North Sea, as challenging but feasible solutions." He believes this would offer carbon-producing industries, like cement production, interesting options to capture their CO2 for further use or disposal. "I'm confident that together with our vigilant, critical public, we’ll arrive at realistic assessments of feasibility and risks.
Author: Patricia Pätzold