The Algerian Hassi R'Mel gas plant: Not exactly an investor's paradise

The Algerian Hassi R'Mel gas plant: Not exactly an investor's paradise

Foto: Youcef Krache / DER SPIEGEL

A Global Shopping Tour Where Will Germany Get Its Energy in the Future?

Germany must not only free itself from Russian gas, but from fossil fuels altogether. Where will those future energies come from?

Algeria would be perfect. At least in theory. It's practically around the corner, it has enormous gas reserves, and there are even pipelines to Spain and Italy. The country could be the winner of the energy crisis that has gripped Europe. All it would have to do is increase production, and everyone would be happy: the Algerians, who would profit from the high prices and, of course, the Europeans – and the Germans in particular, who would finally become a little less dependent  on Russian natural gas.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 30/2022 (July 22nd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Located in the reddish-brown desert, the Hassi R'Mel gas plant is gigantic. It's one of the largest in Africa – a monster of 11,000 tons of steel, 36,760 cubic meters (1,300,000 cubic feet) of concrete and 25,000 tons of pipes. The fuel is transported via pipelines to the Mediterranean coast and from there to Italy, Spain and Portugal. Just under 13 percent of European natural gas imports come from Algeria. A new reservoir has also just been discovered near Hassi R'Mel, from which gas is expected to be produced as early as November. According to estimates, half of Algeria's fields haven't even been developed yet.

Algeria could serve as a building block of Germany's new energy strategy in two respects. For one, it could end dependence on Russian gas. Secondly, the gas could one day be replaced by green hydrogen produced from solar energy. This two-pronged approach would have to be brought together to satisfy the continent's enormous hunger for energy, especially from German industry. Because this much is clear, even if one day there is a wind turbine on every field and a solar system on every roof: Germany will remain an energy-importing country. Some 46 billion cubic meters of gas need to be replaced, an amount of energy that could be used to heat around 20 million single-family homes for a year.

But Loucif Youcef is hesitating. He has worked at Hassi R'Mel for 32 years. As a young man, he disassembled turbines. Today, he runs the entire operation. Youcef refuses to be pinned down as to whether and how much his country could increase production. "We supply according to demand, and there is still plenty of capacity," he says, cryptically.

There's reason for his caution. An increase in production would require longer-term investments. And the gas that can be produced in the short term has already been promised to Italy. If Germany wanted to be supplied by Algeria, it would have to conclude long-term contracts to make the investment worthwhile. Such deals have hardly made sense in recent years, as cheap gas from Russia was filling up European storage facilities.

Algeria, furthermore, isn't exactly an investor's paradise. State structures aren’t transparent, the country has a notorious bureaucracy, and projects can sometimes take twice as long as estimated to complete. Meanwhile, government ministers have little say – the real power lies with the generals lurking in the background.

One of those ministers is Mohamed Arkab, an affable man in his mid-fifties with a mustache and laugh lines. The engineer heads the Energy and Mining Ministry. He says there had previously been little interest from Europe. "Europe used to want Russian gas," he says. "That has changed now." The quiet triumph is visible in his face. "If Germany wants to buy gas from us, then it will have to explore with us," he says.

A law came into effect in Algeria in 2020 to facilitate access for foreign investors. Plans are also on the table for a second pipeline to Italy. Arkab is hoping that Italy will become a hub for gas exports from Africa to Europe – supplied via Algeria. A pipeline leading to Spain via Morocco is currently on ice because of a dispute between Algiers and Rabat. Algeria now transports gas directly to Spain through another pipeline, leaving Morocco empty-handed.

Meanwhile, domestic energy consumption in Algeria itself is increasing due to its young, growing population. A specially created ministry is now meant to forge ahead with the shift to alternative energies for local electricity production, which would free up more gas for export.

But all that will take years. Time that Germany may not have. Nord Stream 1 was shut down for routine maintenance earlier this month, and although natural gas is flowing again, Russia has already said it will throttle supplies again. No one knows how much Vladimir Putin will release in the future and whether it will be enough for next winter. According to a study by the management consultancy BCG, Germany could still meet its gas requirements entirely from sources other than Russia before the winter of 2023. But to do so, it would have to import enormous quantities of additional liquefied gas and exploit all available energy savings opportunities.

Germany can't wait for Algeria or Egypt, with which it has had an energy agreement since last week. Perhaps the solution lies in the United States, in swampy, humid Louisiana, near Port Arthur on the Gulf of Mexico, where the American gas company Cheniere operates the world's largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal.

Sabine Pass, Louisiana, United States

Cheniere executive Florian Pintgen: "We can help Europe quickly and reliably."

Cheniere executive Florian Pintgen: "We can help Europe quickly and reliably."

Foto: Zach Chambers / DER SPIEGEL

In the belly of the Rioja Knutsen, a huge tanker anchored here, some 170,000 cubic meters of liquefied natural gas are cooled down to about minus 160 degrees and pumped through two large metal pipes. The escaping condensation freezes so quickly it envelops the gas lines in a layer of snow.

Liquefied natural gas is Germany's hope for keeping reliably warm in the winter. "We can help Europe quickly and reliably," says Florian Pintgen, standing in front of the Knutsen in a suit and white hard hat. The tall Bavarian man moved to the U.S. as a high school student. Today, as Cheniere's vice president, he is the chief salesman for the world's hottest cold commodity.

A rush for gas has broken out in the Louisiana-Texas border region. Cheniere inaugurated its sixth train in March, as the metal colossi – whose 50,000-horsepower turbines purify and liquefy the natural gas – are called. Lucky for Pintgen, the new plant was completed a year ahead of schedule. "We are stretched to the limit," he says. About 75 percent of the LNG Cheniere produces currently goes to Europe. A year ago, it was only half that.

Not long ago, the U.S. gas industry had been considered dirty – and Germany, in particular, wanted nothing to do with it. The fact that several U.S. administrations – including those of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden – wanted to block Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline was seen as protectionism in the service of the unsavory U.S. fracking industry. But sentiment has since changed.

Unfortunately, Germany's new thirst for LNG doesn't quite jibe with the government's official policy of transitioning to green energy. Liquefied natural gas produces more CO2 than gas transported over land, in part because it is shipped halfway around the world in tankers. And the pipelines that end in Sabine Pass arrive there from numerous different regions east of the Rocky Mountains, including areas of Pennsylvania and West Texas in which fracking is widely implemented.

Producers there are still holding back on investing in new wells and pipelines. Many companies went bankrupt when the gas price crashed during the coronavirus pandemic. The sector is only slowly getting used to the high prices again. Disciplined use of capital, not expansion, is the order of the day.

But Emily McClain believes that will soon change. The analyst at industry consultancy Rystad Energy expects that the U.S. LNG industry will double its capacity by 2030. LNG salesman Pintgen also believes the industry will invest again if the price of natural gas remains close to the record levels of recent months. "For the Europeans, we are a transitional raw material," the manager is clear about that. "Are we their solution for the next 20 years? Probably not." But he's flexible. Cheniere sells its gas "destination free," anyway, with no fixed agreed destination. The customer or, better yet, the market decide where the tankers go from Sabine Pass. That's the only reason so much gas from Sabine Pass ends up in Europe at all, even though 90 percent of Cheniere's production is tied up in long-term contracts – mostly to Asia.

Currently, Cheniere's customers in Japan or South Korea are diverting many shipments to Europe because prices are higher there. If one day Europe no longer needs the liquefied natural gas, the tankers could then be sent in the opposite direction, without a guilty conscience, Pintgen believes. "In Asia, LNG often replaces coal, so it will be needed there for a long time."

Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The LNG terminal in Rotterdam: Hamburg and other German ports are nowhere near as far along.

The LNG terminal in Rotterdam: Hamburg and other German ports are nowhere near as far along.

Foto: Siebe Swart / ANP / IMAGO

At the moment, LNG ships like the Rioja Knutsen moor in Rotterdam twice a week. Liquefied natural gas and coal, urgently needed fuel for power plants, formerly a rather dull commodity, now enjoy top priority here. The Port of Rotterdam calls itself an "Energy Hub for Western Europe."

A good eighth of Europe's total energy requirements – oil, gas and coal – reach the continent via this logistics hub. In the future, climate-neutral green hydrogen is also set to be processed here in large quantities. At least that’s the plan of the enterprising Dutch. Their new goal is to become Europe's "Hydrogen Hub." And they have very concrete plans for making that happen.

Up to seven hydrogen terminals are to be built here in the coming years: berths for freighters from all over the world carrying green hydrogen (H2) or green ammonia, often to be converted to H2 right on the spot. As part of the project, four hydrogen electrolysis plants are to be built – each at least 20 times the size of the most important production facilities in Europe to date. And the hydrogen is to be transported through pipelines hundreds of kilometers long, primarily to the east, to Germany.

Of the 20 million metric tons of H2 that Rotterdam plans to process each year by 2050, almost two-thirds are destined for foreign countries, mostly its energy-hungry eastern neighbor. Managers at the port still don't know if they will meet their goals. But at least they have a vision and partners – and they have gotten started. Even though German industry needs hydrogen more urgently than almost any other, Hamburg and other German ports are nowhere near ready. And thus, Rotterdam will likely continue to serve as the energy hub for Germany in the H2 era, assuming that time ever comes.

"Most people underestimate the huge amounts of hydrogen we will need," says port manager Nico van Dooren. Around 100 million tons of crude oil pass through Europe's largest port every year. To replace just half of that with green hydrogen with the same energy content, around 20 million tons of H2 would have to be produced.

The planned hydrogen pipeline to Germany is to be built directly next to or on top of the existing oil pipeline from Rotterdam via Venlo to Duisburg, Cologne and Ludwigshafen. Because this energy corridor was laid out decades ago, there is no need to plan a completely new route and no need to buy up land. And the permit process likely won't drag on as long as it would for a new corridor. "The plan is to complete the hydrogen pipeline to Germany in 2027," van Dooren says.

The Port of Rotterdam and 69 industry partners aim to provide as much as 4.6 million metric tons of hydrogen for Europe by 2030, including 4 million metric tons from overseas. "To achieve that, about three ships would have to come in per day," van Dooren says. "This would require multiplying the number of ammonia and hydrogen carriers worldwide."

Which finally brings us to the second prong of energy policy, the question of how Germany can get away from gas. When it is no longer just a question of Putin and his potential for blackmail, but about achieving climate goals and transforming one of the world's largest economies – and continuing to satisfy an industry's immense hunger for energy in a CO2-neutral way.

To make that happen, Germany will need green hydrogen in quantities that aren't currently being produced anywhere in the world. In addition to goodwill and hundreds of billions of euros in investment, it will also, mostly importantly, require nations that can produce and export green hydrogen – and are willing to convert their energy industries to facilitate it.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

A kilowatt hour of electricity produced at this solar park in Dubai costs 1.34 cents.

A kilowatt hour of electricity produced at this solar park in Dubai costs 1.34 cents.

Foto: AP Content / picture alliance

The search for hydrogen also takes us to countries whose wealth is based on fossil fuels – and to the office of Mariam Almheiri, the climate minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She has a pretty accurate idea of what's on people's minds in Germany. "Our summer is like your winter," the 42-year-old says. "We need energy to get through it. Not for heating, like in Germany, but for cooling." Almheiri's mother is German.

The UAE has nearly 100 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, placing it at No. 8 in the world, and nearly 6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, putting it in ninth place. This wealth makes Almheiri a sought-after contact these days. In the spring, German Economics Minister Robert Habeck made a stop here during his energy-begging tour of the Arabian Peninsula. The day before, he met with the Emir of Qatar to obtain more liquefied natural gas from that country.

The Qataris are fully committed to fossil fuels. The United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, present themselves as the antithesis of their neighbor. Here, too, the focus continues to be on oil and gas. But the UAE also wants to present themselves as a partner for a renewable future, and Almheiri is a face for that. She studied mechanical engineering in Aachen, in western Germany, and began training as a pilot. At the start of her career, she worked in a technology start-up of Germany's Fraunhofer Society of scientific institutes.

United Arab Emirates Climate Minister Mariam Almheiri: "That's not easy, but it is doable."

United Arab Emirates Climate Minister Mariam Almheiri: "That's not easy, but it is doable."

Foto: Hentschel / MSC

Her background makes her a credible ambassador for the Emirates. Their message: The country is ready to look beyond its finite mineral resources. Almheiri says that 25 percent of low-carbon hydrogen is expected to come from the Emirates by 2030. It also wants to provide the technology needed to extract this energy, convert it into hydrogen, store it and transport it. "We want to establish the whole value chain in our country," she says.

Soon, she says, the proof of these ambitions will be visible, when the first shipment of ammonia is scheduled to arrive at the port of Wilhelmshaven in Germany. "In two or three months," Almheiri says. It is produced from what is called blue hydrogen, hydrogen produced from natural gas. The resulting carbon dioxide is captured and dumped into the ground. "Soon, hydrogen will be produced with solar energy," the climate minister says.

German companies like Siemens Energy have already established partnerships in the country, which has plenty of sun and space. Almheiri says her country is home to the world's largest solar farms. A kilowatt hour of energy costs 1.34 cents. That's a world record, she says, and a testament to the technological expertise that has emerged in her country. With that price, the production of hydrogen, the driving force of the carbon-neutral economy, has become profitable. The aim now, she says, is to produce it on a commercial scale. "That's not easy, but it is doable," she says.

Almheiri and her government are registering very precisely how the representatives of industrialized countries – who are normally fond of talking about the fight against climate change – are knocking on their door in the face of the Ukraine war. "It's always about wanting us to increase production of oil and gas," she says. The German oil and natural gas producer Wintershall, for example, is expanding production at the giant Ghasha gas field, creating 10 artificial islands for this purpose. The state-owned oil and gas company ADNOC is planning to invest $132 billion in exploration.

But it's not as simple as the Germans might imagine. Right now, they're most interested in energy supplies for the next five years, and not really beyond that. But investments are needed. "And they only bear fruit over periods of a decade or two," the minister says. Nevertheless, Almheiri claims, her country doesn't want to stand in the way of a solution. And that solution, she says, could be in the form of longer-term contracts. Ones that could have provisions for the delivery of green hydrogen instead of natural gas in the later years of the contracts.

Gibson Island, Australia

Australian Billionaire Andrew Forrest: a drive that heeds no reservations or obstacles

Australian Billionaire Andrew Forrest: a drive that heeds no reservations or obstacles

Foto: David Dare Parker / The New York Times / Redux / lai

In Germany, green hydrogen had long been regarded as too expensive and little available and with too few possible applications. That view has changed since the war in Ukraine. Germany's industry needs to shift away from Russian natural gas as quickly as possible. But blast furnaces, glass melts and cement factories can't be powered by electricity to the same extent that cars can. That's why the EU in Brussels is now exerting pressure: By 2030, the EU is expected to have 20 million metric tons of green hydrogen at its disposal, double the previous target. Half of that will have to be imported because of the lack of green electricity and electrolyzers in Europe.

For years, Australia simply seemed too far away to even be seriously considered as an energy partner: A freighter takes up to 55 days to travel from Gladstone in eastern Australia to Rotterdam. But German-Australian feasibility tests have concluded that the transport costs are of little consequence, accounting for only around 5 to 7 percent of total costs, especially given that few other countries can produce green electricity in such quantities as cheaply as Australia, with its thousands of kilometers of coastline and abundant sea and wind. Just 4.5 percent of Australia's renewable hydrogen potential would be enough to cover Germany's current primary energy consumption.

And amid the Ukraine war, another argument has also gained importance: Australia is a democratic country that respects the rule of law, and doing business with it doesn't require bowing to a despotic ruler. The country's economy is highly developed and its workers skilled in shipping energy and raw materials. For decades, Australia lived off the export of coal and iron ore to China, South Korea and Japan. Openly anti-climate former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison saw no reason to change that. The new Labor government elected in May is steering a new course, and Australia wants to become the world's export champion in renewable energies.

Germany's future would thus also lie in places like Gibson Island, a factory located a 15-minute drive from the center of the port city of Brisbane. In summer 2024, green ammonia is to be produced here in industrial quantities using hydrogen from wind and solar power instead of fossil natural gas. It would be a world first.

Not even a year ago, Gibson Island seemed doomed. Rising gas prices made production unprofitable. The operating company, Incitec Pivot (IPL), one of the largest fertilizer companies in the world, decided to close the factory with 400 employees at the end of the year. Darren Jarvis, a gaunt man who works as a manager for IPL, sits in a tour bus that curves around the plant grounds, armed with a microphone, in front of two dozen industry representatives and scientists from Germany. They are spending a week in Australia to explore joint projects and hydrogen deals.

Jarvis points to a green bit of fallow land to the left. The Australian company Fortescue is set to build an electrolyzer here in the next few months. The plant, powered by green electricity from wind and solar farms, is expected to yield around 75,000 tons of hydrogen per year at launch, which will be processed into ammonia at the factory. In a few years, the goal is for Gibson Island to be producing 400,000 tons of green ammonia per year. Most of it is to be exported to Europe by ship, either directly to chemical and food companies or, converted back into pure hydrogen, to industrial customers in the steel or cement industries. The first customer has already been lined up: the German chemicals group Covestro.

German industry discovered the country two years ago as a potential major supplier of green hydrogen. In December 2020, the German industry association BDI and scientists from the German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech) founded the HySupply project together with Australian partners to advance a hydrogen bridge between the two countries. In May, German Education and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger accompanied the project group around the country for a week. The Germans have realized that they have to hurry up, lest Asian countries, above all Japan and South Korea, snatch up the precious eco-hydrogen. It works to the Germans’ advantage that they are among the world’s leading suppliers of electrolyzers. Without technology from Thyssenkrupp, Linde and Siemens Energy, not much would work in Australia, either.

In the Pilbara region, on the coast of Western Australia, one of the world's largest hydrogen projects, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, is currently under construction. Some 26 gigawatts of electricity generated from the wind and the sun are to be used to produce 1.6 million metric tons of green hydrogen there annually, with the help of 14 gigawatts of electrolyzer capacity. By comparison: The new German government has set a target of installing 10 gigawatts of capacity by 2030 throughout Germany.

The face of the hydrogen euphoria is Andrew Forrest, with his company Fortescue Future Industries (FFI). Over the past 19 years, environmentally unfriendly mining made Forrest, a former stockbroker and amateur boxer, one of Australia's richest men. The iron-ore magnate has earned a reputation as the Elon Musk of the energy world: loud promises and a drive that accepts no reservations or obstacles.

Forrest now wants to turn his company into a major driver and profiteer of the transition to green energies at a similar pace. He founded FFI, now one of the major players in the global hydrogen business, in 2020. Fortescue wants to radically drive down production costs for green H2 as he did with iron ore. To do that, scale, above all else, is needed. The company's advertisements state that Europe could completely replace fossil natural gas from Russia with green hydrogen. By 2030, he has said, FFI alone could supply around 15 million tons of green hydrogen a year.

To deliver the volumes announced on paper, however, the company would need about 150 gigawatts of electrolyzer capacity and 450 gigawatts of electricity from wind and solar by 2030. Many in the industry don't think that's feasible, even in Australia. Even at FFI, some don't know how to meet the tempo requirements and promises of their boss. In this sense, too, the company is similar to Tesla.

At the end of March, FFI signed a memorandum of understanding with the German energy utility company E.on to supply 5 million tons of green hydrogen per year to Europe, according to which the first 200,000 tons would be shipped in the form of green ammonia as early as 2024. Forrest personally traveled to Berlin for the public announcement. So far, though, there is no firm contract.

The reasons are typical and underscore what ails the market, despite all the euphoria. E.on has to first find customers in German industry. And that isn't easy, especially given that it is unclear how expensive a kilogram of eco-H2 will be in the future. Currently, green ammonia is cheaper than conventional ammonia produced using natural gas. This is due to the record high prices for gas and LNG. However, the usual supply contracts generally run for 10 years, by which time the price gap could open up again. It is also still uncertain what the European Commission will accept as its definition of green hydrogen.

And without set customers, many projects in Australia that currently exist only on paper may not come to fruition. Without sufficient supply, demand could also falter. It's a classic chicken-and-egg problem. The German government wants to solve this with a funding instrument that uses an auction mechanism to bring together green H2 producers from around the world and customers from Germany. The government has made 3.6 billion euros ($3.6 billion) available as compensation for the price difference between green hydrogen and its fossil counterpart. The program, called H2Global, is scheduled to launch later this year.

But Germany isn't yet ready for the hydrogen revolution either. It lacks infrastructure, such as port terminals for liquid ammonia and plants that could convert it into hydrogen, and pipelines. Instead of investing in hydrogen networks, German Economics Minister Habeck must now first invest billions in LNG terminals, ships and pipelines. Indeed, the Port of Rotterdam is currently Germany's hope.

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