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Austria to convert coal power plant as Russian reduces gas deliveries

Austria will convert its Mellach power plant in Styria to run on coal instead of natural gas in case of an emergency.

Austria to convert coal power plant as Russian reduces gas deliveries
A photo shows cooling towers of the hard coal-fired power plant Scholven operated by the German energy group Uniper in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany on April 29, 2022. Austria has shut down all its coal plants in 2020. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

On Sunday, Austria’s federal government announced it cut a deal with energy group Verbund and will convert the Mellach power plant in Styria to run on coal.

The announcement comes as Russia has delivered only half as much gas as promised in the past few days. Austria gets 80 percent of its supply from Moscow and has been looking for alternative sources since the war in Ukraine.

Mellach was Austria’s last coal-fired power plant until it was converted into a gas-sourced plant and put on stand-by in 2020.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s emergency plan if Russia cuts gas supply?

The decision to convert it back to coal two years after the country celebrated its coal phase-out was taken by a crisis cabinet led by chancellor Karl Nehammer.

“The most important thing is that the acute gas demand can be met, and we can create gas supplies for the winter,” Nehammer said. Currently, gas storage facilities are filled at 39 percent, but should be at 80 percent by October to be ready for the heating season.

The plant operator said it would need time to make necessary changes to Mellach and purchase the required coal for combustion.

The goal is to have operations ready so that the power plant can be used in a few months, if necessary, the Ministry of Energy told Der Standard.

In the long run, though, Austria intends to reduce its dependence on Russia, which will take years, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessl said.

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ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

In recent months, there have been fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the winter season. The good news is that gas storage facilities are filling up, but by how much? Here's an update.

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the EU imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, there have been concerns in Austria about the domestic energy supply.

The biggest worry is that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming heating season, which could quickly become a crisis when coupled with skyrocketing energy prices.

On Tuesday (August 16th), the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity is now 60 percent full. This is already a significant improvement from early April, when reserves were just over 10 percent full.

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve. 

READ ALSO: Where are energy prices going up (again) in Austria?

But the Wiener Zeitung reports that there are questions over where the gas has come from as Gazprom has reduced deliveries to Austria’s OMV (the partially-state owned energy company) by two thirds.

Where is the gas coming from?

Christoph Dolna-Gruber, an energy advisor at the Austrian Energy Agency, said the origin of the gas “is not explicitly known”.

For example, from October 2022 to September 2023, OMV has secured additional natural gas supplies of 40 TWh from Norway and the Netherlands, reports the Wiener Zeitung.

The Austrian Federal Government has also secured 20 TWh of gas from two tenders, of which 8.5 TWh has been confirmed by the Ministry of the Environment to be from non-Russian sources.

However, the gas storage operators do not publish data on customers and contractual partners, so the origin is not in the public domain.

The extra 20 TWh of gas will be owned by the state but it is still unclear how it will be “handled” (e.g. for domestic use or for redistribution outside of Austria).

FOR MEMBERS: Why (and when) double-digit inflation is set to hit Austria

How much gas can Austria store?

The capacity of Austria’s gas storage facilities is 95.5 terawatt hours (TWh) or 8.6 billion cubic metres. The gas is stored underground in depleted natural gas reservoirs at a depth of between 500 and 2,300 metres.

Austria’s gas storage facilities are located in Haidach, Aigelsbrunn, Auerbach (the facility is known as 7-Fields), Puchkirchen, Haag, Tallesbrunn and Schönkirchen. All of the facilities are in Salzburg or Lower Austria.

OMV manages 26 percent (25.3 TWh) of Austria’s natural gas storage volume and the rest is divided between RAG, Uniper Energy and Astora.

The Haidach storage facility was previously managed by Gazprom and Astora, but the agreement with Gazprom came to an end earlier this month after Gazprom stopped making deliveries.

Since August 1st, Haidach has been managed by Astora and RAG. 

READ ALSO: Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

How much does Austria rely on Russian gas?

Prior to the war, Austria relied on Russia for 80 percent of its total gas consumption. This has reduced in recent months but Austria is still heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supply.

And following Gazprom’s announcement on Tuesday that gas prices could rise by up to 60 percent in the coming months for European customers, Austrian residents should expect further increases to their gas bills this winter.

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