Can Austria reduce its dependency on Russian gas? 

Russia's gas exports have given it significant geopolitical power alongside the war in Ukraine. How can Austria reduce its reliance on Russian gas imports?

A Gazprom logo. Russian gas is crucial in Austria's energy supply. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP
Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Poland on Wednesday. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

The Ukraine war has exposed how reliant Austria is on Russian gas – but according to experts, it may be possible for it to reduce this dependency before long, broadcaster ORF reports.

The EU Commission wants to present a proposal by mid-May to reduce dependence on Russian gas imports by 2027.

The EU’s new energy policy, REPowerEU, already envisages reducing Russian gas imports by almost two-thirds by the end of the year and partially replacing them with liquefied natural gas (LNG) from non-Russian suppliers.

READ MORE: Russia’s attack on Ukraine will ‘deeply destabilise food supplies in Europe’

A switch to renewable energies is also planned.

However, according to Austria’s Federation of Industry (IV) there is no short term alternative to gas from Russia.

IV boss Georg Knill said Austria must not “recklessly jeopardise its own energy supply”,  in a press release.

Austria is aiming for all its electricity to be from renewable sources by 2030. However, a Court of Auditors (RH) found in 2021 that Austria would miss this target on the basis of measures it has taken so far.

It also found greenhouse gas emissions in Austria increased by five percent from 1990 to 2017, while they fell by almost a quarter on average in the EU. 

Austrian environmental organisations are calling for greater use of biogas, better renovation of existing buildings, and more use of solar energy.

There should also be an expansion of wind and geothermal energy. Vienna wants to end its use of gas by 2040, and is building the largest large-scale heat pump in Europe in Simmering.

READ MORE: How will the war in Ukraine impact the cost of living in Austria?

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‘Unimaginable’: Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

As an "emergency measure", Austria is getting ready to reopen a coal-fuelled power station near Graz amid fears there will be disruptions to the gas supply from Russia this winter.

'Unimaginable': Austria prepares to reopen coal power station

At the Mellach coal power plant in southern Austria, spider webs have taken over the conveyor belts, and plants and flowers have sprung up around the vast lot that once stored coal.

The plant, Austria’s last coal-fuelled power station, was closed in the spring of 2020, but now the government – nervous that Russia may cut its crucial gas deliveries further – has decided to get the site ready again in case it’s needed.

“I never would have imagined that we would restart the factory,” Peter Probst, a 55-year-old welder, told AFP during a visit of the plant.

“It’s really sad to be so dependent on gas,” he added.

READ ALSO: How to keep your apartment cool in Austria this summer amid rising energy prices

Europe had been trying to move away from coal in the fight against climate change.

But as Russia has cut gas deliveries in the wake of sanctions the West has imposed on it for the war in Ukraine, European countries are turning back to coal.

Today, the Mellach plant’s white and red chimney stands out amid fields of corn and pumpkins, the city of Graz in the distance.

Inside, the walls are black, and coal dust clings to the doors and railings.

Some 450,000 tonnes of coal were stored at the plant before its closure as Austria’s conservative-Greens coalition aimed to have all electricity come from renewable resources by 2030.

Site manager Christof Kurzmann-Friedl says the plant operated by supplier Verbund can be ready again in “about four months” — just in time to help tackle any gas shortages in winter.

READ MORE: When will you get your cost of living ‘bonus’ payments in Austria?

Welder Peter Probst reacts to the news that the coal-fuelled power plant in Mellach will be reopened. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“Emergency measure”

Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted on Monday that the plant would only go online if necessary, while Austria holds on to its goals to reduce emissions.

“It’s really an emergency measure,” the conservative told foreign correspondents at a briefing.

“It’s really something that shows how extraordinary our times are… We must prepare for any eventuality.”

The 230 megawatt power plant would take over from the nearby gas-fired plant, also operated by Verbund, which currently supplies heating to Graz’s 300,000 inhabitants, according to Kurzmann-Friedl.

FOR MEMBERS: EU oil embargo: How will the sanctions impact Austria?

He warned, however, that the site must still be readied, hooking up all the equipment again, in addition to hiring qualified personnel and above all finding enough coal.

Before, the coal mainly came from mines in Poland’s Silesia region, which the Polish government is aiming to shut.

Because coal prices have risen by as much as three times since 2020, the power produced by the plant will also be more expensive, Kurzmann-Friedl said.

Criticism has already flared with the opposition Social Democrats slamming the decision to reactivate the coal plant as “an act of desperation by the Greens”.

“Will the next step be the reactivation of Zwentendorf?” the opposition asked, referring to the country’s only nuclear power plant.

The Alpine nation of nine million people has been fiercely anti-nuclear with an unprecedented vote in 1978 against nuclear energy that prevented the plant from ever opening.