If international politics followed the rational rules of economics, this story would be unnecessary. And no one would dare to call into question the decision Germany made three years ago to phase out all of its nuclear power plants. If economic reason prevailed, no one would seriously expect Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to hit upon the idea of turning off the West’s gas supply, especially as selling natural gas is one of the few sources of revenue for Russia.
Nevertheless, the West can no longer completely rule out a halt on Russian gas deliveries, possibly in retaliation for heightened Western sanctions. The volatile fuel has always made it to Germany in the past, even in the darkest days of the Cold War. But now the West is slowly losing faith in the reliability of its Russian suppliers.
Moscow shut off the flow of gas to Ukraine months ago, and it has just signed a major agreement to pipe natural gas to China. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, stoked the fears of Europeans last week when he claimed to have knowledge that Russia intends to shut off the flow of gas to the European Union this winter. Both the Russian energy minister and the head of oil and gas producer Rosneft promptly denied the charge.
Would a Russian decision to shut off the natural gas supply to Germany reignite the debate over Germany’s move to rely more on renewables, known as the Energiewende, and especially over the phase-out of nuclear energy?
A glance at the statistics reveals how unconvincing the idea of replacing gas with electricity from nuclear power plants is. Germany obtains 35 percent of its natural gas from Siberia, but recent figures show that only 12 percent of all natural gas consumed goes to generating electricity.
If the supply from Siberia is cut off, Germany will face a heating crisis, not an electricity shortage. Half of the country’s 41 million households use natural gas for heat. Industry consumes a little more gas than all households combined – to generate process heat, but also for things like welding, smelting, producing plastics and hardening fats. Industry and households would be the target of a Russian gas embargo.
The Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne, known by its German acronym EWI, analyzed the potential impact. It concluded that almost all European countries could cope with a Russian gas embargo beginning in November, but only if it lasted no more than three months. The countries could offset a shortfall in gas deliveries during this period by drawing on well-stocked gas reserves and importing somewhat more gas from other sources.
According to the current EWI study, if the embargo lasted six months even Germany could no longer satisfy normal levels of demand. And if the supply shortage continued for nine months, or until the middle of next year, Germany, as the largest importer of Russian gas, would face serious problems. It would see a shortfall of 12 billion cubic meters (424 billion cubic feet), or more than a third of the amount private households consumed last year for heat and hot water.
Under the European Union’s so-called security of supply directive, or SoS, private households are “protected customers” and, as such, their gas supply cannot simply be shut off. In addition, the German Economics Ministry has drawn up a “Preventive Action Plan for Gas,” which commits German gas suppliers to guarantee the supply to households “in all probability,” even when “the largest single infrastructure is lost for 30 days.”
But there is a problem with this plan. The official risk scenarios make no mention of the total loss of supply from pipelines coming from Russia. For that reason, the supply seems more secure than it actually is. In the near term, Germany would be unable to avert the unpleasant consequences of a prolonged natural gas embargo.
One option is to build a German terminal equipped to receive liquefied natural gas. But this would be impossible to achieve within a few weeks, and besides, it would not even significantly improve the security of supply. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial method of producing natural gas, also could not be used to offset the loss of Russian deliveries in the short term. And Germany’s long-term fracking potential is also limited. Experience has shown that only a fraction of the amount of natural gas considered technically recoverable can be produced at a reasonable economic cost.
The best solution would be to reduce the amount of heating energy private households consume by accelerating the pace of building renovation to improve energy efficiency. But even that wouldn’t help Europeans out of a tight spot if they suddenly ran out of natural gas.
At this point, only the weather forecast is offering some relief. The current forecast by the German Meteorological Service, known as the DWD, extends until January 2015. After that, says DWD spokesman Uwe Kirsche, the service expects temperatures to be “average or slightly warmer than normal.”
Still, households will need heat, and even a warm winter can see cold snaps. If that happens and there is a gas shortage, power plants and industrial operations with contracts allowing their suppliers to shut off supply, if necessary, will be the first to be disconnected from the natural gas grid. A number of companies signed these agreements in return for cheaper pricing.
If the crisis reached households, their only options would be to switch to other energy sources or conserve. Reducing room temperature by one degree Celsius lowers natural gas consumption by about six percent on average.
Electric heaters are an alternative to gas furnaces. But a rush on fan heaters and radiant heaters would not only quickly lead to shortages, but their increased use could also overload the electricity grid. Michael Ritzau, managing director of the Aachen-based consulting firm BET, does not rule out dramatic consequences if electricity is used to replace the loss of Russian gas for heating purposes. The grids could “break down” in southern Germany, he says.
Consumers could also begin to see problems arising in their homes. The wiring in some older buildings is not necessarily capable of handling the additional load of electric heaters, warns Bernd Dechert, the head of the Central Association of the German Electrical and Information Technology Trade. In the most innocuous case, overloading could blow a fuse, but in the worst case it could lead to cable fires.
Even fireplace and wood-burning stove owners wouldn’t be immune to Mr. Putin’s potential retaliation. There are roughly 14 million wood-burning devices in German households. If they were used for four hours a day for two months in a row, the supply of dry firewood would be exhausted.
Mr. Putin could hit the Germans where it hurts with an embargo. But it’s reassuring to know that it would probably hurt the Russians even more.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org