WILHELMSHAVEN, Germany — In March, the German government asked energy companies to scale a seemingly impossible engineering task. Could a new liquefied natural gas import terminal, which will take at least five years to build, be built in this port city by the end of the year?
Technical director Thomas Hüvener asked his team this question when asked to build a pipeline section at the company’s headquarters. “If not, then no,” he said. “If that’s the case, then we have to commit to all possible consequences for our company.”
After three days of discussions, the company concluded that if everything went perfectly, the project could be completed by Christmas. Since then, it has had to contend with potentially toxic land and environmental regulations that protect frogs and bats. When workers encountered high groundwater, they had to drain the trenches and then fill them.
Another company building a bridge for a floating terminal had to inspect the seabed for unexploded ordnance from the Second World War and scout construction sites in Europe for supplies.
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“This project is really a race against time,” said Franz-Joseph Kissing, the pipeline’s project manager. “It’s a battle.”
Most of Europe, cut off from Russian natural gas, is rushing to sort out alternative energy sources and build the necessary infrastructure for them. If the continent fails to shore up its power grid, governments may have to resort to fuel rationing this winter, which could lead to factory shutdowns and more pain for manufacturers. If gas tanks are not replenished, next winter could be even more difficult. The EU estimates that ending Russia’s dependence on fossil fuels would add at least 300 billion euros, or about $315 billion, to infrastructure spending by 2030.
As Russia cut off most natural gas exports to Europe this fall, gas flows from Russia to Germany have dropped from 55% of imports last year to zero. Three German liquefied natural gas terminals scheduled for completion this year could meet at least 15% of the country’s gas demand. Berlin plans to install several more terminals next year and is working on more permanent installations. In 2022, it allocated more than 6.5 billion euros in the budget for such terminals.
Dozens of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, facilities are planned to be built in the European Union in the coming years, which would allow Europe to buy more gas from countries such as Qatar and the United States.
Days after work began on the 19-mile pipeline between the new Wilhelmshaven terminal and the natural gas grid, Mr. Kissing’s employer, pipeline builder Open Grid Europe GmbH, has assembled a team of experts in everything from route planning to environmental protection. archeology and law.
Cooling natural gas to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit turns it into a liquid that can be shipped in ocean-going tankers to terminals, where it can be turned back into a gas. A floating LNG terminal is a gas facility on a giant specialized tanker that receives liquid gas from another tanker and turns it into a gas.
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The pier, which will host the floating Wilhelmshaven terminal, is a particularly complex project because it must withstand the pressure of two large, gas-filled ships against it. Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co., which built the pavilion. The first challenge for KG was to find materials quickly. It would take months to order them from the factory. Mathias Lüdicke, manager of the company’s Wilhelmshaven branch, said the company had to explore Europe for construction materials, including steel piles to be driven into the seabed.
Niedersachsen Ports called on suppliers from France, the Netherlands, Finland and the Baltics. He found 165-foot steel piles in an empty construction site in Lithuania. The original plan called for smaller plans, so the company adjusted the plan.
To save time, most of the 3,000 cubic meters of concrete needed for the project were delivered in giant, prefabricated blocks assembled like Lego pieces.
“We needed things that were ready,” Mr. Lüdicke said. “So we changed the whole planning process based on what was available.”
A bridge under construction for a floating liquefied natural gas terminal in Wilhelmshaven. Mathias Lüdicke, right, manager of the Wilhelmshaven branch for Niedersachsen Ports GmbH.
Ports of Niedersachsen put other projects on hold to focus on the work. Staff worked over the Easter weekend to prepare the necessary documents. “Nobody cared about the hours because we all said it had to work,” Mr Lüdicke said.
The German bureaucracy also made adjustments. Parliament passed the LNG Acceleration Act, which expedites the procedures for review, approval and award of contracts for LNG projects.
“If there’s a chance in this really terrible situation, it’s that we stop all this sleeplessness and in some cases madness that we have in Germany,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in March about accelerating the construction of LNG terminals.
Other major construction projects in Germany are progressing slowly. In 2020, Berlin opened its new airport nine years behind schedule. Stuttgart’s new railway station, under construction since 2010, is scheduled to open in 2025 after years of delays and ballooning costs.
The state of Niedersachsen issued some of the necessary permits for the LNG terminal on Sunday, May 1, International Workers’ Day. “It’s not the day you expect it to happen,” said state economy minister Olaf Lies. “We needed a new German speed.”
Similar projects elsewhere in Europe have faced opposition from activists opposed to building new fossil fuel infrastructure, who say such projects harm the local environment.
The floating LNG terminal in Piombino, in the Tuscan port of Italy, is expected to be put into operation next May. But several local groups have protested the project, claiming it poses risks to residents and the environment. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that the anchoring of the new ship in Piombino is vital for Italy’s economy and national security.
In Germany, the new pipeline would cross the path of the frogs’ annual migration. Mr. Kissing’s team built frog fences to keep animals out of the trench where the pipe would be buried. In some cases, experts had to create new caves for bats.
When they started digging, they discovered another problem. The soil in the region contains high concentrations of sulfuric acid, which can be toxic in some cases when exposed to oxygen for long periods of time.
Also, the groundwater level was high. The trenches had to be dry to weld the pipes.
To solve both problems, Mr. Kissing’s 800 workers, working in 400-foot increments, pumped the trenches dry, then filled them.
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“You can rush as much as you want, but land is land,” Mr. Kissing said as he walked the grounds on a recent rainy morning.
Pipeline project manager Franz-Josef Kissing, left. Mr Kissing, right, inspects the connection between the pipeline and the German gas network.
Groundwater also contained more than normal iron. So the company had to set up special ironing facilities to filter the water before dumping it back into the nearby fields.
The connection of the new pipeline to the German gas network created another problem. It has to connect to an existing pipeline that carries gas from Norway, which has become essential for Germany and cannot be shut down in the coming days for shutdowns to take place. A bypass facility had to be built to allow the gas to flow.
Before starting the construction of the pier, Niedersachsen Ports first had to search for unexploded ordnance for the Second World War. Wilhelmshaven, Germany’s only deep water port, was heavily bombed during the war. The company scanned the seabed and recovered smaller munitions.
In September, four months before the deadline, a problem appeared that threatened to make it impossible to finish on time. The Wilhelmshaven sea lock – a structure used to raise and lower boats passing between bodies of water in the harbor – suffered a mechanical failure, forcing the port to close the passage. The piles needed for the bridge welded in the harbor are stuck there.
Mr. Lüdikke met with officials of the waterway administration and the German navy and found a solution to the problem. The harbor would allow ships carrying piles to pass through the lock with only one door open, but only when the tides were even.
“It was a very nice balancing act, a lot of coordination,” Mr. Ludike said. If we didn’t achieve this, we wouldn’t be able to launch the terminal this year.”
Open Grid Europe GmbH workers at the pipeline construction site, left. Dewatering plants, right, are built to filter groundwater for discharge to nearby fields.
In September, explosions damaged the Nord Stream pipeline, which runs along the bottom of the Baltic Sea several hundred miles east of Wilhelmshaven, in what European authorities called an act of provocation. This has led to concerns about the vulnerability of energy infrastructure across Europe. Local police have deployed officers along the route of the new beltway and patrol boats around the bridge.
Mr Lüdicke is hoping for good weather as his team races to the finish line. Bad weather can cause delays and high winds regularly stop work. There is still work and testing to be done before the floating terminal, the 965-foot Hoegh Esperanza, docks in Wilhelmshaven in the coming days and starts flowing gas.
Utility Uniper SE, which the German state recently agreed to nationalize and will operate the terminal, said that if all goes according to plan, the first tanker carrying LNG will arrive early next year.
“If we have extreme weather, it can cause problems and delay things,” Mr Ludike said. “We are very close.”
Margherita Stancati contributed to this article.