How can we realistically replace natural gas? | Knowledge and the environment | DW

If Moscow turns off the gas tap completely, there could be serious consequences for German industry and consumers in the fall.

Buying from other sources, including LPG, economic consumption and more electricity generation from coal – this is how the German government wants to avoid an energy crisis. At the same time, the liberal FDP party involved in the ruling is demanding that German nuclear power plants be allowed to operate for a longer period and the lifting of the ban on extracting natural gas through so-called fracking.

But which of these factors actually helps avert an impending energy crisis – and what are the consequences for the climate and the environment?

Should German nuclear power plants run longer?

There are currently only three nuclear power plants (NPP) connected to the grid in Germany. They will be decommissioned by the end of 2022 as part of the phase-out of nuclear weapons. “Germany has been working towards phase-out for a long time, so nuclear power plant operators have cut staff and haven’t asked for any new fuel rods,” says Bruno Berger of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE).

The Isar 2 nuclear power plant is one of three plants still connected to the grid, along with the Emsland and Neckarwestheim nuclear power plants.

The Nuclear Industry Association considers the purchase of new fuel rods feasible — but not until fall 2023. “During the coming winter, nuclear power plants could operate in an extended operation, that is, with reduced production,” association spokesperson Nicholas Wendler explains in an interview with DW. .

According to the energy scientist Berger, Germany got 20 percent of its uranium from Russia, another 20 percent from Kazakhstan, and also from a Russian sphere of influence. An alternative must be found. It will take decades to build new nuclear power plants due to safety measures.

Additionally: In 2021, current power plants only produced about 34.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) – that’s 34.5 billion kilowatt-hours – of electricity. For comparison: with wind power it was tripled at 113 TWh.

No carbon dioxide is released when nuclear power is used. However, when uranium is extracted, radioactive waste is produced. So far, there is no storage warehouse in Germany. And in times of climate crisis, nuclear power plants have to be shut down more and more for days or weeks due to increased heat and drought because rivers no longer carry enough cooling water.

Can cracker gas be promoted in Germany?

About five percent of Germany’s natural gas is produced domestically using conventional wells in sandstone deposits. According to the Federal Association of Natural Gas, Petroleum and Geological Energy (BVEG), there are currently guaranteed reserves of 32 billion cubic meters, which is equivalent to about 320 TWh of energy.

The Federal Institute of Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) estimates that about 450 billion cubic meters (4,500 TWh) are in the coal seams and another 2,300 billion cubic meters (23,000 TWh) of natural gas is in shale. Extraction would only be possible through fracking, but in Germany’s shale gas deposits this is prohibited for environmental reasons because there are concerns that the chemicals used in fracking will contaminate the environment and groundwater.

Infographic: How does crushing work?

Even if the ban is lifted, German cracker gas will not be ready for next winter. “Even if one opens up about the use of hydraulic fracturing technology now, it will probably take up to four or five years before production begins,” says Ludwig Möhring, the association’s general manager. Because of the resistance that exists in politics and society, the association sees no room for maneuver on its own. Moring stresses that the strategic decision rests with the federal government alone.

And: “During production, three to five percent of the amount of gas can be lost and reach the atmosphere – this is devastating, because methane (What Natural Gas Is Mainly Made Of – Editor’s Note) is more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide,” says energy scientist Burger.

Can wind and sun solve the energy problem in the short term?

Although the federal government has introduced several new rules to expand renewable energies with the so-called Easter package, they do not yet apply.

According to Frank Gronizen of the German Wind Energy Federation, wind power projects of around 10,000 megawatts are currently under approval. However, the process takes an average of six years per wind turbine. So there won’t be enough new wind turbines by fall.

An aerial view of a residential house in the Vauban district of Freiburg, where each roof is made entirely of solar cells

Solar settlement in Freiburg: this is what other roofs should look like in the future, but there are still many bureaucratic obstacles

The situation is similar to solar energy. Solar photovoltaic and thermal systems can be produced and put into operation relatively quickly, explains Carsten Korning, director general of the German Solar Industry Association, in an interview with DW. However, for now, the industry is still suffering from interrupted supply chains as a result of the Corona pandemic. Above all, more financial incentives and the security of planning for turbo-expansion – and fewer bureaucratic hurdles – are needed.

Corning estimates that more than 1,000 systems already installed on commercial sites are not currently allowed to supply the grid because the terms for doing so changed two years ago. Appraisers can no longer keep up with the necessary tests. “That’s several million kilowatt-hours that don’t go into the power grid.”

DIW: Use more coal-fired electricity and less energy in the short term

According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Russia’s short-term energy supply could essentially be replaced by more coal-fired power generation. To do this, the lignite and hard coal power plants that are currently operating will have to generate more electricity. In addition, power stations that have been shut down but still available to the network must be restarted as a safety precaution. The Federal Ministry of Economics has already called on power plant operators to prepare to operate their systems as soon as possible.

Wind turbines are located in front of the RWE coal-fired power plant in Neurath at the Garzweiler open-pit mine

In the short term, according to energy science, coal capacity should be increased, but at the same time renewable energy sources should be greatly expanded

Depending on how much energy can be saved, DIW expects 41 to 73 TWh of electricity from coal in 2023. However, Germany can stick to both its planned 2030 coal phase-out and nuclear phase-out, according to DIW. However, only if renewable energies are actually expanded to the extent that the federal government plans. Then coal power generation could drop dramatically again from 2024 onwards.

According to Bruno Burger of the Fraunhofer Institute ISE, burning hard coal releases on average twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, and lignite up to two and a half times. However, due to the loss of methane during production and transportation, natural gas is also not a climate friendly energy.

Without savings it will be difficult

Not only the DIW, but also the Jülich Research Center and the Federal Energy and Water Management Association (BDEW) assume that eliminating Russian natural gas cannot be replaced by other energy sources alone – less energy should be consumed overall, say.

Infographic of natural gas consumption 2021 in Germany

BDEW sees “short-term savings potential” above all in space heating. Here, the commerce, trade and service sector can save up to ten percent of their former consumption – but private households can save even more: up to 15 percent. In order to reduce energy demand, “energy-saving campaigns are needed as quickly as possible,” DIW writes. In addition, measures must be implemented very quickly to increase energy efficiency and facilitate the transition to renewable heat (in combination with heat pumps).

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