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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
Two years after the coal plant in Mellach was shut down, the last coal-fired power plant in Austria, the Austrian government has decided to reopen it fearing a shortage of gas deliveries from Russia the country depends on. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

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.

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ENERGY

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).

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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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