Cloudy skies in Germany for a solar glass factory dependent on Russian gas

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Chernitz (Germany) (AFP) – In the photovoltaic glass factory in Tschernitz in eastern Germany, the noise of the machines does not drown out the worries about the future of production if the Russian gas tap should be closed because of the war in Ukraine.

Inside the hangar, topped with a white chimney, mechanical arms work to shape the glass panels destined for solar panel manufacturers.

“We supply all major manufacturers in Europe,” explains Torsten Schroeter, Managing Director of GMB Glasmanufaktur Brandenburg.

Every year, 10 million m2 of slabs come out of the factory’s furnaces, which emit a bright red light and intense heat.

But to make this vital glass with solar energy, you need… gas, lots of gas.

Thanks to the pipelines connecting Russia to Germany, the raw material is in abundance.

But how long?

“Security of supply is currently guaranteed,” responded the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate and expressed “concern” after Gazprom’s announcement.

Especially since Berlin is increasingly being pressured by its allies to agree to an embargo on Russian gas.

However, the government of the social democrat Olaf Scholz, which is allied with environmentalists and liberals, claims that a sudden stop in deliveries would be devastating for the country’s economy.

And for good reason: Russia supplied 55% of Germany’s natural gas imports before the war, a share that has fallen to 40% in recent months.

“No alternative”

That refusal is being debated in German politics and among pundits, some of whom believe the European powerhouse would withstand the shock.

In the camp of those for whom life without Russian gas is unthinkable in the short term, industrialists are at the forefront.

“A supply stop for Russian gas would mean a production stop for us,” sums up the head of GMB, which employs 300 people.

The photovoltaic glass factory in Chernitz, eastern Germany, on April 19, 2022. Florian CAZERES AFP

Stopping the gas flow would shut down the furnaces and cause irreversible damage.

To do this, the company would have to “rebuild everything from scratch,” which, according to Schroeter, could take months or even years.

Because “there is no alternative” to Russian gas, he complains.

The use of coal or oil is not suitable. As for electricity, the company has already invested in a hybrid system that allows partial electric heating of its ovens, but this only covers “10%” of its needs.

Hydrogen could replace natural gas, but its development has not progressed far enough in Germany.

The federal government is knocking on all doors to diversify its sources of supply, but does not believe that it will be able to do without the Russian supplier before mid-2024.

“The cheapest”

“The last decades, marked by the deregulation of the energy market, have meant that we have opted for the cheapest gas that is supplied from the Russian gas pipeline,” admitted former Social Democratic Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel in early February.

A delivery stop would lead to “production interruptions”, “loss of jobs” and “massive plant damage”, according to the BDI, a powerful industry lobby.

Chemical giant BASF, for example, has warned that halving Russia’s gas supplies would be enough to “freeze” its emblematic site in Ludwighsafen (West), where nearly 30,000 people work.

According to a report by LBBW Bank, the sectors most affected by gas consumption include the paper industry, steel industry and chemicals.

Even without an embargo, German industry is already being weakened by soaring energy prices, which jumped 39.5% yoy in March, after gains of 22.5% in February and 20.5% in January.

Result: The Tschernitz glassworks has trouble staying competitive against the Chinese competition.

Nearly 170 gigawatt-hours of gas are used each year in the factory’s furnaces to heat the raw material – quartz or dolomite – to over 1,600 degrees and turn it into glass for solar panels.

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