Germany is preparing for a potentially permanent stoppage of the flow of Russian gas from Monday, when maintenance work begins on the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that delivers fuel to Europe’s biggest economy via the Baltic Sea.
Work on the 759-mile (1,220 km) pipeline is an annual event and requires gas valves to be turned off for 10 to 14 days. But never before in the pipeline’s decade-long history has Germany seriously questioned whether the flow will start again.
Robert Habeck, German Economy Minister, did not hesitate to respond to the government’s concerns. On Saturday, he spoke of the “nightmare scenario” that could unfold.
“Anything is possible, anything can happen,” Habeck told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “It could be that the gas is flowing again, maybe more than before. It may also be that nothing comes.
“We have to honestly prepare for the worst-case scenario and do our best to try to deal with the situation.”
Contingency plans are quickly being drawn up across Germany, where there are genuine fears that Moscow will use the opportunity to further weaponize gas as leverage against the West in its war with Ukraine and permanently cut off supplies.
Russian gas is vital for the functioning of the German economy as well as for keeping the majority of homes warm. Throughputs through the pipeline have been reduced in recent months and are about 40% of normal levels. Russia blamed the sanctions for the reduced flow, arguing that they hampered its access to spare parts.
On Saturday, Canada said after consultation with Germany and the International Energy Agency that it would grant a temporary exemption from sanctions against Russia to allow the return from Montreal of a repaired Russian turbine needed for the execution of maintenance work.
On Friday, the Kremlin said it would increase gas supplies to Europe once the turbine was returned to Russia. Ukraine has opposed this, arguing that it helps maintain the continent’s dependence on Russian gas.
But Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the clearance is “time-limited” and will help “Europe’s ability to access reliable and affordable energy as it continues to drift away of Russian oil and gas”.
Since the start of the war in February, Germany has worked to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, in particular by building liquefied natural gas (LNG) ports.
On Friday, an emergency law completed its passage through both houses of Parliament to allow the reactivation of mothballed coal-fired power plants, despite their carbon intensity.
But the overall withdrawal process has been complex and slow.
The short-term objective is to try to replenish the stocks of German gas storage facilities to survive the winter. The most recent reading, released by the Federal Network Agency on Friday, showed storage facilities were at 63% capacity. The goal is 90% by November 1.
The longer-term goal is to reduce dependence on gas by increasing renewable energy production, in part by redefining sectors as vitally important to national security.
German industry and households consume around two-thirds of the country’s gas supplies.
Plans are already in place to prioritize who would have access to gas in the event of a cut. Hospitals and emergency services topped the list, while households ranked above most industrial businesses.
But on a more local level, as authorities grapple with rising energy costs and the challenge of how to cope if households are left out in the cold this winter, contingency plans are in place involving all , from closing swimming pools, turning off streetlights and traffic lights, and housing citizens in industrial-scale dormitories. Not so long ago intended for coronavirus patients, makeshift containers were described as “hot rooms” or “heat islands”.
Meanwhile, demand for anything that heats without gas is at an all-time high, including electric and oil-fired heaters, infrared panels and convectors, as well as basic camping stoves.
Installers of wood-fired furnaces and heat pumps report long waiting lists and cite a chronic lack of parts, as well as a shortage of qualified personnel.