Pointless waste? Germany still produces 14 percent of its electricity from gas. Economics Minister Robert Habeck must completely ban gas-fired power generation, even demands Finance Minister Christian Lindner. But this is not so easy for two reasons.

It sounds really illogical at first. Everyone is saying that Germany urgently needs to save as much gas as possible in order to get through the winter safely in the event of a possible supply stop by Russia – and then Germany is still using gas to generate electricity? Even though we have coal-fired power plants, even though there’s wind power and nuclear? A little more than 15 percent of German electricity was generated using gas in 2022, according to data from the “Energy Charts” from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg. Who is supposed to understand that?

Certainly not Christian Lindner. “Gas must no longer be used to produce electricity, as is still the case,” the finance minister dictated to “Bild am Sonntag” on the notepad at the weekend. “Robert Habeck would have the legal authority to prevent that.” Instead, one must “obtain other power capacities,” demanded the FDP boss – such as “the safe and climate-friendly nuclear power plants”.

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This same Robert Habeck, Minister of Economics for the Greens and actually also a colleague in Lindner’s cabinet, immediately raised an objection through his spokesman. The spokesman warned on Sunday that a complete abandonment of gas in the electricity sector could certainly lead to the electricity crisis and even to blackouts. “There are systemically important gas power plants that have to be supplied with gas,” said the spokesman. “If they don’t get gas, there will be serious disruptions. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the electricity system, which you have to know in order to ensure security of supply.”

As is so often the case when it comes to power systems, the matter is actually not that simple. Energy carriers such as nuclear power or gas have different strengths, weaknesses and possible applications, which means that they cannot be easily exchanged with one another. Gas-fired power plants, for example, have two major advantages that have made them an indispensable pillar in the German energy system.

First, gas can not only generate electricity, but also heat. Roughly explained, in most gas-fired power plants, water is first heated by burning gas and converted into steam. This steam, in turn, drives a turbine that generates electricity. In many gas-fired power plants, the resulting heat does not simply dissipate through the cooling tower, but is fed into the district heating network. Experts speak of what is known as “combined heat and power”: the by-product heat is used to heat homes.

This means that if you want to end all generation of electricity from gas, you would also end the generation of heat in many places – exactly what you don’t want with regard to the coming winter. The Federal Environment Agency counts a total of 87 gas-fired power plants in Germany with combined heat and power, including the two most powerful gas-fired power plants, Emsland-Lingen (Lower Saxony) and Irsching (Bavaria). The combined heat and power plants that municipal utilities use to supply hundreds of thousands of homes and offices throughout Germany are also important. The combined heat and power plant in Berlin-Mitte, for example, supplies the capital’s government district with electricity and heat – with his request, Lindner would turn off the electricity and heating in his own office.

Secondly, gas-fired power plants can be used flexibly in terms of region and time. In Bavaria, for example, there are only four power plants that use coal because the state has almost no coal deposits of its own. Instead, Bavaria is forced to rely on gas-fired power plants. The 32 Bavarian gas-fired power plants also play an important role because they are the ones that can be ramped up quickly as soon as the demand for electricity increases critically and not enough electricity from renewable sources can be supplied from the north. And this is happening more and more often: The expansion of the line to Bavaria is lagging behind due to years of blockades from the Free State.

Gas-fired power plants are elementary for this so-called “redispatch” in Bavaria. The Ministry of Economics also points out that many gas-fired power plants, especially in the south of the republic, are absolutely systemically important. And because some of these power plants also generate heat, the Lindner proposal would not only turn off the lights in Bavaria – but probably a few heaters as well.

However, it is also true that there are gas-fired power plants in the Federal Republic that are not systemically important and do not generate heat. Not only can these be replaced by other energy sources, they should be if you are serious about saving gas. This is also pointed out by FDP circles: Presumably Lindner’s initiative only aimed at those gas-fired power plants, not all of them, they say.

But the Ministry of Economics explains that they have been working hard on this for a long time. A first ordinance from mid-July already allows hard coal-fired power plants, which were actually only available as a reserve, to return to the electricity market for a limited period of time. On Monday, the Mehrum power plant in Hohenhameln, Lower Saxony, celebrated its brief comeback as the first hard coal power plant.

From October 1st, lignite-fired power plants should also be allowed to be connected to the grid again. Coal-fired power plants can be ramped up just as flexibly as gas-fired power plants and in many places they can also do the trick with combined heat and power – which makes them a better gas substitute than nuclear power plants that have been shut down, for example.

According to the ministry, a gas-saving ordinance for shutting down non-system-relevant gas-fired power plants in electricity generation is also in the works. As far as it makes sense, the Habeck authority is already working on exactly what Lindner is asking for. Whether it shouldn’t have started earlier, for example immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – that’s another question.