Robert Habeck wants to make Germany less dependent on Russian gas with his LNG offensive. In the FOCUS online interview, Lower Saxony’s economics minister and CDU top candidate for the state elections, Bernd Althusmann, explains why Habeck’s plans have a catch – and what the citizens really have to face in the energy crisis winter.

FOCUS online: Mr. Althusmann, Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck is working flat out on his LNG offensive. Two of the floating liquid gas terminals are already under construction in Lower Saxony. Do you share Robert Habeck’s LNG euphoria?

Bernd Althusmann: We must do everything to ensure that there is no gas emergency in Germany, and LNG technology will be a building block in reducing our dependence on Russian gas. So we’re speeding up the LNG ports. The first floating liquid gas terminal is expected to go into operation in Wilhelmshaven at the end of the year. Another one is being checked there. Stade will follow in 2023.

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But there is a catch: the expansion for LNG imports on our coasts is expensive. The necessary port infrastructure alone will cost around 200 million euros. And now guess who’s going to pay for that.

The federal government, with funds from the economic budget?

Althusmann: No, not a cent is currently flowing from Berlin into the construction of the LNG infrastructure in Lower Saxony. The country should pay for it. The federal government has so far withdrawn from financing the regasification ships for liquid gas. So far, the federal government has left us alone with this. Mr. Habeck boasts about his LNG offensive – but we foot the bill.

Did you address that in Berlin? What does Robert Habeck say about this?

Althusmann: Robert Habeck excuses it by saying that the federal states are ultimately responsible for port expansion despite the crisis. I say: The LNG Measures Act should have been combined with a corresponding financing law. Securing our energy supply is a national task and responsibility.

If you consider that Lower Saxony should spend 400 million euros for Wilhelmshaven and Stade and that we also have to counter-finance the federal hydrogen strategy with 30 percent – another around 800 million euros – then we are talking about a total of 1.2 billion euros, that we have to face alone.

In addition, there would be 300 million euros for the urgent expansion of an offshore wind energy megahub in Cuxhaven. That exceeds the possibilities of a federal state that is the cornerstone of the German energy supply. In any case, we will not be able to achieve energy security and energy transition at the same time. I would have expected a lot more from the traffic light.

LNG technology alone will not be able to get us out of the energy crisis in the short term. You have spoken out in favor of a limited extension of the lifetime of the remaining nuclear power plants. Why is this so important to you?

Althusmann: The extended operation of the three nuclear power plants still connected to the grid will be unavoidable for Germany in the coming year. They ensure a good six percent of Germany’s power supply. That doesn’t sound like much, but you have to keep in mind: The three nuclear power plants that are still connected to the grid produce electricity – about 33 terawatt hours – the equivalent of several million households, which is not so easy to replace.

In addition, 13 percent of the electricity comes from gas and is fed into the German grid. This is often ignored if we now reduce gas consumption to fill our storage tanks for the winter. In this respect, the feared heat gap in winter can quickly turn into a power gap. So we can’t just do without it because we have to save gas – the Greens are slowly coming to this conclusion.

Markus Söder brought the stretching operation into play weeks ago. Robert Habeck waved it off at the time. How do you explain the minister’s about-face?

Althusmann: I don’t think Robert Habeck was sufficiently well informed at the time. Perhaps he judged the situation too much under the impression of his political roots, without realizing the facts.

It’s good that things seem to be different now. Nevertheless, I reproach him with the fact that Germany is taking a very long time to find answers to the questions of the energy crisis. Why are companies that want to switch temporarily from gas to coal, for example, still not gotten their permits? Why do we still not have a signature on the Qatar supply contract?

But you agree with the Greens on one point. You both rule out a real extension of the running time with more miles.

Althusmann: Yes – because we have taken the path of phasing out nuclear power. And I stand by the fact that this decision will not be shaken. We have discussed this up and down for years, the decisions have been made and the energy suppliers have adjusted to them.

TÜV association leader Bühler recently suggested reactivation of the decommissioned Grohnde nuclear power plant in Lower Saxony. The nuclear power plant is in excellent condition and can be restarted and connected to the grid within a few months or even weeks. Can such a suggestion really be ignored?

Althusmann: The reactivation of Grohnde is theoretically technically possible, but it is much more complicated than is generally known. Since parts of the plant are apparently already in the process of decontamination, the effort is actually too great, also from a safety point of view, to put the nuclear power plant back into operation.

Incidentally, the energy suppliers are not always interested in reactivation of the reactors either, because they do not want to renegotiate the phase-out contracts that have already been signed. Such aspects also play a role in this question. There must be no renegotiation here, reliability is required.

Your prognosis: Will there be rationing in the energy supply for citizens and companies in winter?

Althusmann: Unfortunately, there is currently no scenario from the Federal Network Agency that assumes a secure supply in February and March 2023 if the gas storage facilities are not at least 95 percent full by the beginning of November. The Federal Network Agency will get into a situation where they have to present a list of energy-intensive companies that need to be shut down.

That would have dramatic consequences for the German economy, and the glass, chemical, steel and automotive industries in particular, as well as the food industry in Lower Saxony, could be massively affected. Then a decision must be made between the critical infrastructure, important industry with all the jobs behind it and the heat consumption of the citizens. Supplying the public with heat has priority, but the preservation of elementary economic sectors must also be taken into account.

We must also protect our economic performance. And anyone who claims that there is only one gas problem in Germany is, in my view, just missing the point. By next year at the latest, we may also run into a serious power gap.

Do you see the federal government prepared for such a case – or flying blind?

Althusmann: In any case, well-intentioned recommendations for sporadic showering will not solve the energy crisis. I have the impression that the federal government is trying to create the feeling of having done something with many individual measures. A bit of a tank discount here, a bit of a €9 ticket there. There are many small appetizers, a kettle of colorful things.

What I lack is a clear and viable security strategy, a solid contingency plan for Germany. Mr. Habeck is just as challenged as the chancellor. In addition, we should prepare the people in Germany for what is likely to come and how hard it could be. Citizens deserve open and honest communication from the federal government.

What do you have to say to people? What do you have to expect?

Althusmann: The federal government must simply describe the facts to the citizens – without stirring up panic. That means we have to tell them that, despite European solidarity, we could end up in an energy supply gap that would be very difficult to close. And we have to be honest – and prepare the German population for the fact that we may face a loss of prosperity.

It is clear to me that such messages do not win elections. But I think we should be honest, not just proclaim the turning point, but act accordingly and subject Germany to a stress test – that applies to the economy, the population and politics as a whole. And we should exhaust all possibilities to deal with the energy crisis.

Really all possibilities? According to estimates, there are around 120 billion cubic meters of gas under Lower Saxony that could be extracted using fracking. Christian Lindner spoke out in favor of it, you wave it off. Can we really afford not to use fracking gas?

Althusmann: It would be years before the technical possibilities were available to extract this gas, which lies very deep and in dense rock. In addition, so-called unconventional fracking is prohibited in Germany. Conventional fracking was still used until 2012. However, numerous laws would have to be changed and it would take years before we could again provide significant funding.

So we shouldn’t have debates about what our plight can’t solve in the short term anyway. That doesn’t get us anywhere.

What is your vision of independence from Russian gas?

Althusmann: We have to be prepared for the fact that Putin will use gas as a weapon against us for as long as possible. In order to achieve independence in the long term, we must rely on LNG imports, self-production and the expansion of renewable energies. And we have to be prepared for the fact that gas will come through Nord Stream 1 and certainly not through the uncertified Nord Stream 2 if the war and further sanctions continue.

Incidentally, we should also use the potential of domestic geothermal energy more quickly. We could extract geothermal heat from some existing wells in Lower Saxony to supply entire cities. And an innovative energy policy should pay more attention to introducing energy management systems in the economy to save energy instead of talking about a speed limit on highways. This could save us billions of kilowatt hours over the next few years.