Full energy ahead

By JAN HAUSER (text) and PATRICK SLESIONA (photos)

February 25, 2023 · Wilhelmshaven dreams of a boom in hydrogen. But the new liquefied natural gas terminal cements fossil Germany. The turning point leaves deep traces.

There is something new to see here. Jens Schmidt puts his hand on the barbed wire, pushes it down and lifts his leg over the fence. The few thorns stop the tall energy manager only briefly to climb from the road onto the dike. With his fine leather shoes, he walks onto the lawn and then up high. On this February day, Schmidt looks at mudflats, water and clouds from the top of the dike. But his fingers point to the left at the ship Höegh Esperanza, which is firmly anchored here one or two kilometers away and has already caused quite a stir: Germany's first liquefied natural gas terminal has docked in Wilhelmshaven to balance part of Russia's gas supplies and satisfy the hunger for energy.

But for Jens Schmidt, this only counts as a marginal aspect. Behind the dike, on the other side of the road, there is a gate to a huge lawn. He walks through, points to the site the size of several football fields and to the boundaries to the left of an oil refinery. There is nothing to see here. But Schmidt sees a lot – the climate-neutral energy supply of the future.

For hydrogen: TES manager Jens Schmidt is planning an energy park on the coast.

For the young company Tree Energy Solutions (TES), headquartered in Belgium, Schmidt has been working as Chief Technology Officer for more than a year. Behind the dike, he is to build a large-scale operation and transform this lawn into a hub for green energy with large amounts of hydrogen. One day, this should cover one-tenth of Germany's primary energy needs. Schmidt also wants to satisfy the hunger for energy, but without greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy world meets in Wilhelmshaven. All this also depends on the horror of the Russian attack on Ukraine a year ago, which brought war, destruction and death to Europe. Instead of Russian natural gas from the pipeline in the east, tankers are now shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the new terminal on the North Sea coast. Not everyone likes that. Energy costs have risen and greenhouse gas emissions have remained. Environmentalists fear that the Wadden Sea will suffer and too many liquefied natural gas terminals will be built.


February 27, 2022: Three days after the beginning of the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) speaks in the Bundestag of a turning point. The world is no longer the same. He also talks about becoming CO2045-neutral as an industrialized country by 2 and at the same time building up a coal and gas reserve. "Finally, we made the decision to quickly build two liquefied natural gas terminals, LNG terminals, in Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven," says Scholz. A terminal where gas arrives today could also absorb green hydrogen tomorrow.


Independent: After the Russian attack on Ukraine, Germany is freeing itself from Russian energy: liquefied natural gas arrives at the LNG terminal in Wilhelmshaven.

One year later, Imke Zwoch and Rainer Büscher look out from the entrance of the small port of Hooksiel to the LNG terminal. The wind blows against them. They have repeatedly demonstrated against the liquefied natural gas terminal, discussed with politicians and debated dangers. Satisfaction looks different. Zwoch is chairwoman of BUND Wilhelmshaven and Büscher is her deputy. He says: "After the talk of Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag, it was everywhere turning point, turning point." This had to have consequences for Wilhelmshaven.

During the conversation, a black head appears off the coast in the North Sea. Büscher looks over the horizon and sees the animal first. Seal? Grey seal? It disappeared too quickly for that. The liquefied natural gas vessel remains on the coast for a longer period of time and is firmly anchored to a jetty. Zwoch looks over. "The federal government pays 200,000 euros a day for the ship," says the conservationist. "I don't want to calculate what it costs per year – that's crazy!"


May 5, 2022: Construction work on the LNG terminal begins offshore. Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck follows the first ramming on board a ship. "We have a good chance of achieving what is actually impossible in Germany: building an LNG terminal within about ten months and connecting it to the German gas supply."


For decades, liquefied natural gas has repeatedly reached Wilhelmshaven. Economically, this was not worth it. Only since the war in Ukraine did Germany build its own liquefied natural gas terminals like here. On the sea side, the tanker can stop with liquefied gas, hand over its cargo and move on. For transport, the natural gas is cooled down to minus 162 degrees beforehand, which greatly reduces the volume.

The LNG vessel Höegh Esperanza remains stranded to convert the liquefied natural gas on board back to normal. Uniper, Germany's largest gas importer, operates the terminal. The ship is a restricted area for visitors, the company informs. Only required employees are allowed to cross the long footbridge. The gas pipeline also runs to the coast, on which the delivery comes ashore. From there it goes on into the gas network, into factories and houses. For example, households in Germany heat every second apartment with gas.

Under observation: The conservationists Imke Zwoch and Rainer Büscher fear the consequences for the Wadden Sea National Park.

Much of this is worthy of criticism for environmentalists. You can see how much the fossil energy structure in Germany is being expanded. You ask how this fits in with the efforts towards climate neutrality. On the ground, they fear what will happen to the Wadden Sea in the event of an accident. "The fire brigade doesn't even know what it can actually do if something happens here," says Zwoch.

The environmentalists are bothered by how the ship is cleaned with chemicals so that no mussels grow. Official bodies refer to measurements and limit values. That's not enough for them. Büscher talks about how many small animals live in the protected Wadden Sea. "The chloride from the LNG terminal then settles on the ground, in deeper sinks or on the ground," he says. They demand renunciation. Zwoch says that companies have offered Uniper to convert the ship for an alternative cleaning process without chloride. "We have appealed against the approval of chloride discharge into the Wadden Sea." Outcome unclear.

+++ August 31, 2022: Russia is taking the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline out of service for maintenance. Since September, no gas from Russia has reached Germany. Russian gas supplies had already been curtailed.


If you want to dredge, build and stay on the coast, you have to pay attention to the environment. TES is also not yet allowed to get started on their premises. Ground-nesting birds have settled there, for which replacement areas are being prepared. The young company is approaching environmentalists for this. "Unlike Uniper, TES seeks contact with us," says Zwoch. Their assessment: The more they deal with environmental concerns in advance, the fewer hurdles have to be overcome later. The authorities decide which areas are suitable, the investor must buy and prepare them.

Pipeline connections from LNG to the mainland at Uniper's site

If they have achieved this with the compensation areas, TES wants to turn the big wheel of the energy transition. In the morning, Jens Schmidt hurries through the office floor, which they have rented centrally in the city. He sits down at the conference table and talks about the vision of a hydrogen economy, for which he left his job for the US chemical giant Dow Chemical.

He calls for Germany to rapidly expand renewable energies. "But that won't be enough if I look at the coal phase-out and nuclear phase-out in Germany alone," he says. Green energy must be imported. First of all, enormous quantities of hydrogen are needed to be produced in sunny and windy regions with cheap green electricity: In America, Africa, Arabia or Australia, huge photovoltaic systems and wind turbines are running. After production, the hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to form a gas, which facilitates transport.

The tankers that ship the hydrogen in combination with carbon dioxide across the seas are to arrive in Wilhelmshaven. Behind the dike, the company wants to separate the CO2 from the hydrogen, bring it back to the same ship, drive to the production site and combine it with the next hydrogen. For example, hydrogen should go cheaply to energy-intensive companies that want to become climate-neutral. Alternatively, steel mills or other factories can even use the gas directly as an energy source if they capture the released carbon dioxide on site and send it back to Wilhelmshaven with boiler trains or new pipelines. Green energy supply in the carbon dioxide cycle. "We need speed," says Schmidt. Their concept is the only one that can be implemented quickly. It will be too late to develop other technologies.


September 1, 2022: The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy awards the operation of the fifth LNG ship to TES together with the energy companies Eon and Engie, which is scheduled to start in Wilhelmshaven in autumn 2023. The vessel will be chartered for five years, but will only be operated at the Wilhelmshaven site until the hydrogen terminal for green gas planned by TES in parallel is put into operation.


But even this hub on the North Sea coast still needs a few more years. The LNG ship is not part of the original plan, but it could start sooner. The meadow is still green. Compensation areas, permits, a drainage concept are needed, then foundations for the tanks and roads. "This will be a real industrial site," says Schmidt. The energy park is expected to cost three billion euros. Photos with the animation show what it should look like on the coast one day: tanks, halls, gas pipelines, ships in the blue North Sea. If everything goes quickly, it could start at the end of 2025 or 2026. Schmidt then expects marketable prices.

If this succeeds, Wilhelmshaven will become a model for the world. Production ports and energy parks are to follow later. "Once I've shown that the business model and the technology work, it's just replicating these modules," says Schmidt. The founders Marcel and Paul van Poecke are involved in the company as well as other employees – and Schmidt. Most recently, financial institutions and energy companies such as Eon, HSBC, Unicredit and Zodiac Maritime have invested in TES.


September 20, 2022: Uniper confirms talks with the German government about its entry for eight billion euros. Due to the Russian gas supply stop, the group makes high losses. In addition, the government buys shares of the Finnish majority shareholder Fortum and comes to 99 percent of the shares in December. This means that the terminal in Wilhelmshaven is in state hands.


On the rise: Company representative Uwe Oppitz (right) and economic promoter Alexander Leonhardt attract industry to the North Sea.

Alexander Leonhardt sees Wilhelmshaven on the rise. As managing director of the economic development agency, he has to do the same. In his office opposite the town hall, he throws a presentation on the wall with the beamer. Where others see gaps, he sees room for investors. In the vicinity of the liquefied natural gas terminal and the TES area, he projects the potential: The route of hydrogen is to run through Wilhelmshaven to Germany and thus attract industrial companies such as CO2-neutral paper production. Together with Uwe Oppitz, spokesman for the corporate initiative "Energy Hub Port of Wilhelmshaven", he is trying to create the conditions for companies to settle.

Just a year ago, it was difficult for them to penetrate. With the liquefied natural gas terminal, the city is moving forward. Leonhardt shows a map with the possible water network and holds his finger on a dotted line below Wilhelmshaven. In the past, they had to beg for a connection to the hydrogen line. Gas pipelines are laid through the liquefied gas terminal. This month, Oppitz and Leonhardt were in Berlin for an exchange at Robert Habeck's Ministry of Economic Affairs. Such appointments would have been rare in the past.

Alexander Leonhardt, Managing Director of Wirtschafsförderung Wilhelsmhaven

There is not much going on in the city yet. In the pedestrian zone of Wilhelmshaven, the baker stands next to an empty shop. Representatives of the region see this positively: While real estate prices are rising in large cities, it is cheap to live here. The seclusion kept Wilhelmshaven on the sidelines for a long time. Too much was too far away. Now that could be an advantage. The proximity to the water. The port for the hydrogen economy.


17 December 2022: The new LNG terminal in Wilhelmshaven is ready. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck and Finance Minister Christian Lindner look at the ship for the inauguration. Scholz says: "Russia's President Putin believed he could blackmail us by cutting off gas supplies from us. But he was wrong. We will not allow ourselves to be blackmailed." Further terminals are to follow.


In the port of Hooksiel, the dredging vessel Anke repeatedly sails in and out of the harbor. It dredges silt out of the driveway. Up on deck, the silt water runs out of a pipe. Anke lies crooked in the water, rattles around and has seen better times. "The ship looks fitter than some others," says Rainer Büscher.

Strand Hooksiel in Wangerland near the LNG terminal in Wilhelsmhaven

Where do we go from here? "Would have, would have, bicycle chain," says Imke Zwoch. Twenty years ago, much more should have been invested in renewable energy. The local environmental associations recently organised an information evening entitled "Energy in the hands of citizens". However, bureaucratic hurdles are high for such models for green electricity systems. Of the new speed of Germany, with which politicians talk about the rapid construction of the LNG terminal, she notices little for the expansion of green electricity.

"Saving is part of the energy transition," says Zwoch. She reports that almost a quarter of Germany's gas consumption is caused by the plastics industry. "We all agree that far too much plastic dominates our everyday lives," she says. But in the supermarket, every cake and sausage is wrapped in plastic. Too much, Büscher agrees: "It's lapping up day by day."

The transition to an economy without greenhouse gas emissions is not easy. The conflicts are programmed in many places. Imke Zwoch: "Do we as environmental associations always have to have the solution when the people in politics have promised us the climate targets?"

On the liquefied gas ship, the light is switched on in the evening. The LNG terminal can be seen far away on the coast. Here the fossil past shines through the night. Behind the dike, the gate to the future transshipment point for hydrogen is closed. The meadow lies deserted in the darkness. Jens Schmidt has long since re-entered the company's own hydrogen car. He drives back to the office. And back to the future.

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