Germany ready for winter with 'speedy' new gas terminal tapping global market

'The National' tours Wilhelmshaven LNG terminal which is ready for its first delivery as Berlin moves to replace Russian pipelines

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Europe’s newest weapon in what it calls an energy war with Russia was built at such speed that one engineer, Folker Kielgast, choked up in tears as he saluted his comrades.

Just 194 days after work began, Germany’s first maritime gas terminal is ready to receive its first shipment.

It opens the door to gas imports from all over the world — a big step in breaking free from Russia.

“We are becoming independent. We will not let ourselves be blackmailed, and we stand by Ukraine without relying on third parties for gas,” said Olaf Lies, a local politician closely involved with the project in Wilhelmshaven.

The pier at Wilhelmshaven is one of two in Germany hurriedly set up to receive liquefied natural gas by ship.

At Wilhelmshaven, it will be converted back into gas and piped into the 511,000km German gas network to help keep the lights on this winter.

The National was on board the motor boat Fair Lady as people behind the project took a celebratory ride to the terminal on Tuesday.

Over seafood and fried eggs, they savoured what Mr Lies called a “new German speed” in a country with a reputation for no-shortcuts bureaucracy.

While environmentalists have a list of objections almost as long as the 350m pier, there is hope that the same can-do attitude will now be applied to clean energy.

“It means realising projects in a space of time that we in Germany could not have imagined in years and decades gone by,” Mr Lies said.

An aerial view of the LNG terminal at Wilhelmshaven. Photo: NPorts/Wolfhard Scheer

Shadow of war

Holger Banik, the head of port operator NPorts, said he wished it had not taken Russia invading Ukraine to finally make the terminal happen.

Wilhelmshaven was identified as a possible site as early as the 1970s but the project could never get off the ground.

While other countries built LNG terminals, energy company Uniper shelved the Wilhelmshaven idea in 2020, saying the market conditions were not suitable.

As late as October 2021, German officials wrote a now-infamous report saying yet more Russian gas was the way forward.

Only in February 2022 did Chancellor Olaf Scholz abandon the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline and turn towards LNG.

About 30 to 40 engineers worked on the Wilhelmshaven terminal every day from May onwards, building 194 pylons and pouring 3,000 cubic meters of concrete.

“It was a super effort from you all,” said the tearful Mr Kielgast.

Ministers chartered ships to act as floating regasification units, such as the Hoegh Esperanza in Wilhelmshaven, until permanent facilities are built on land.

The first LNG shipment is expected to arrive in Wilhelmshaven in mid-December and ease the strain on Germany’s energy grid.

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A second terminal at Brunsbuettel is due to start operating around the same time. Others are still in progress and should come online in 2023.

The US, Australia and Qatar are among the potential LNG suppliers to Germany, which can forward gas to its European neighbours.

Uniper believes the extra gas could help prevent blackouts this winter and stabilise the European energy market.

“We expect the imports to have a positive effect on the German gas market,” Christian Janzen, a technical director at Uniper, told The National on the deck of the Fair Lady.

“We believe it will make a significant contribution to energy security.”

Germany is entering winter with its gas tanks almost 100 per cent full after an unseasonably warm October.

But its problems will be far from over in the spring, with politicians already looking nervously ahead to the winter of 2023/24.

Germany had many months of Russian supplies this year before Moscow turned off the tap, which it is unlikely to enjoy next year.

Direct LNG imports will be able to cover about a third of Germany’s gas needs by next winter, it is hoped.

However, the combined 25 billion cubic metres of annual gas capacity provided by five planned LNG terminals is still below the 55 billion in Nord Stream 1.

With every gas shipment precious, Mr Janzen said security would be high at the Wilhelmshaven terminal.

But he would not say whether security was tightened after the apparent sabotage attacks on Nord Stream 1 and 2.

Politicians and people involved with the LNG project take a boat ride to the terminal in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Tim Stickings/The National

Climate concerns

Many climate activists are not celebrating. They see LNG as a backward step when Germany is meant to be consigning fossil fuels to history.

“What has Germany achieved this year? Gas, gas, gas,” and extra coal and nuclear power, said Elisabeth Staudt of Environmental Action Germany.

It comes at a time when condemned coal plants are being reactivated and nuclear reactors kept on the grid for longer than planned.

Another complaint is that gas imported from the US is likely to come from fracking, a process many activists dislike.

Then there are concerns for local wildlife, with environmentalists alarmed about water contamination near a national park.

Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck brushed aside fears for local porpoises despite insisting he was the “biggest porpoise fan in the government”.

Those behind the Wilhelmshaven project insist it is not incompatible with Germany’s green goals.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck was present when construction began at Wilhelmshaven on May 5. Reuters

The vision of Mr Scholz and others is that LNG terminals should one day be converted into green hydrogen hubs.

On the day politicians showed off the Wilhelmshaven pier, Germany announced €550 million ($572 million) of new funding for hydrogen.

“The example of Wilhelmshaven shows that Germany can be quick and move infrastructure projects forward with great resolve,” said Mr Habeck.

A recent report by a scientific institute cast doubt on whether conversion for hydrogen would work.

Mr Janzen said it would be the middle or the end of the decade by the time green ammonia, used to make hydrogen, arrives in Wilhelmshaven.

Mr Lies conceded that politicians had lessons to learn about how to communicate with concerned voters.

But “we are not taking a step backwards to a fossil fuel era,” he said as the motor boat approached the terminal.

“Let’s take what we’ve achieved — building infrastructure at high speed, showing people in Germany that we can do it — and translate it to other projects that we have, to climate change, to the transformation of industry, to the path out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy.”

Updated: November 16, 2022, 1:57 PM
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