What many feared has now happened: Russia has threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe. Now the EU also wants to gradually end Russian energy imports. The buyer countries are now frantically looking for alternatives. This also includes Germany, the largest buyer of Russian natural gas. Germany gets more than half of its gas from Russia.
Accordingly, many options are being discussed – including life extensions for nuclear and coal-fired power plants. Even the Green Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck says there are no taboos. But which proposals are viable alternatives to natural gas as an energy source? The answers are sobering.
Postpone the nuclear phase-out
The operators of the nuclear power plants have signaled their willingness to talk, but have also made it clear that it is not easy to extend the service life – partly because there is a lack of fuel rods and the know-how, because the power plant operators are already retired or on the way there.
These may not be insurmountable obstacles, but nuclear reactors cannot replace gas-fired power plants in the grid: The three remaining nuclear power plants – which are actually scheduled to go offline in the course of the year – can generate a good four gigawatts (GW) of electricity – around seven percent of the average electricity requirement – with almost perfect consistency. However, German power consumption fluctuates within 24 hours between 35 to 40 GW at night and 75 to 80 GW at peak times on weekdays.
In the meantime, Economics Minister Robert Habeck has signaled that the nuclear phase-out should probably go according to plan
The fact that nuclear power plants are almost always run at full capacity is not just a question of economics. Technically speaking, they are not as easy to start up and shut down as, for example, gas-fired power plants, in which gas turbines usually drive the generator.
In the power grid, they are therefore mainly responsible for balancing out rapid load fluctuations that occur, for example, when millions of people turn on their lights and coffee machines in the morning while industrial companies are starting production.
Put coal blocks back into service
Coal-fired power plants are more flexible than nuclear power plants, but not nearly as much as gas-fired power plants. Their output is adjusted over the course of the day in such a way that they roughly close the gap between the feed-in of the renewables that can be expected – depending on the weather conditions – and the predictable consumption profile. However, they cannot absorb short-term or unforeseeable load changes.
Gas-fired power plants are now running more frequently at lunchtime because they have to fill the gap left by coal-fired power plants that have since been shut down. In this case, extending the service life of coal-fired power plants could actually prevent even greater dependence on natural gas, and reactivation could even reduce it somewhat.
Coal-fired power plants can only replace natural gas to a limited extent in power generation, and not at all in the heating sector
“In the electricity sector, a limited substitution of natural gas might be possible,” says Christoph Nolden from the Fraunhofer Institute for Energy Infrastructure and Geothermal Energy IEG. “But that’s the least of our problems.” Only about one sixth of the German net consumption of natural gas is used for power generation.
Around half of the natural gas in Germany is used to generate heat and hot water in households and the tertiary sector (industry, trade, services) as well as district heating. The rest, about a third, is used by industry as a source of energy and for chemical processes.
In contrast to nuclear power, coal power is also used to generate district heating. However, district heating networks are usually powered by either coal or natural gas. Here, too, coal cannot replace gas. At best, the conversion from old coal to more emission-efficient gas heating plants that is pending in some places could be postponed. The almost seven million households with gas heating cannot switch to coal.
Apart from that: Some hard coal also comes from Russia.
Replace natural gas network with hydrogen
In fact, the natural gas, which consists mainly of methane, can be mixed with 20% by volume of pure hydrogen without jeopardizing the usability of the gas mixture in heating boilers and gas stoves. However, the energy content of the gas mixture would be lower, so that a 20 percent admixture would only replace around 7.5 percent natural gas.
In the short term, however, this possibility is also ruled out in order to noticeably reduce Germany’s dependence on Russia. Because around 95 percent of the hydrogen available in Germany today is obtained from: natural gas and coal. And they come from Russia, albeit to different degrees.
Hydrogen produced by electrolysis could only replace a tiny part of the natural gas in the next two winters, says gas expert Nolden: “The capacities are marginal.” And anyway, the available electricity would probably not be enough. “Even in industry there are hardly any alternatives to natural gas in the short term,” says Nolden.
LPG imports from other countries
So if Russian natural gas isn’t easy to replace, it would have to come from somewhere else. Qatar, Australia, Canada and the USA are named as the delivery countries. However, the majority of their production is already tied to long-term supply contracts. However, the quantities available on the spot market could just be enough to replace the Russian gas.
LNG can also be landed and regased in Rotterdam. But the capacity is unlikely to be sufficient to supply Central and Eastern Europe
On the other hand, it is questionable whether and how the gas will reach consumers, says Nolden. Spain does have significant landing capacities for LNG and it is also connected to Germany and Eastern Europe via the European gas network, but: “The direction of flow of the gas is normally from north and east, to south and west. Whether this can be easily reversed physically is completely open .”
Conclusion: dress warmer
In the coming week, Nolden and other members of the nationwide research group TransHyDe want to present a report on how security of supply in Germany could at least be increased without Russian gas. Nolden did not want to give DW a binding outlook before the upcoming considerations. But his forecast so far has been cautious: “The positive thing is that, unlike an electricity grid, a gas grid doesn’t collapse when it’s undersupplied. But ad hoc, I don’t see any real alternatives to Russian natural gas.”