The five-year engineering feat Germany pulled off in months

WILHELMSHAVEN, Germany—In March, the German government asked the power industry to consider a seemingly impossible engineering feat. By the end of the year, can a new gas import facility, which usually takes five years to be built, be built?

At the company’s headquarters, asked to make a pipe section, chief engineer Thomas Hüwener asked his team the question. “If no, then no,” he said. “If yes, then we must commit, with all possible consequences for our company.”

After three days of negotiations, the company decided that if everything went well the project could be done by Christmas. Since then, it has fought against potentially toxic soil and conservation laws protecting frogs and bats. When workers encountered high water on the ground, they had to drain the drains, then backfill them.

Neptune, a floating LNG terminal

The ship ‘Neptune’ approaches the port of Mukran, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. The first of several ships that will serve as a floating point to receive natural gas in Germany has arrived at the Baltic Sea port of Mukr. (AP Newsroom)

A company building a floating airport must search the ocean floor for unexploded ordnance during World War II and scour European construction sites for supplies.

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“This project is a race against time,” said pipeline project manager Franz-Josef Kissing. “It’s a war.”

Cut off from Russian natural gas, many Europeans are scrambling to connect to other sources of energy and supply them with essential equipment. If the continent fails to expand its electricity supply, governments may need to use fossil fuels in the winter, which could lead to factory shutdowns and pain to producers. The next winter could be very tough if the gas reserves are not replenished. The EU estimates that ending dependence on Russian oil will add 300 billion euros, or about $315 billion, to the cost of infrastructure, until 2030.

Since Russia halted most gas exports to Europe this fall, gas flows from Russia to Germany have dropped from 55% of last year’s imports to zero. Germany’s three natural gas fields expected to be completed this year could supply 15% of the country’s oil demand. Berlin is planning to install several more terminals next year and is working on permanent installations. It has budgeted more than €6.5 billion for the terminal in 2022.

More natural gas, or LNG, is expected to be built in the European Union in the coming years, which would allow Europe to buy more natural gas from countries such as Qatar and the US.

A few days after working on the construction of a 19-kilometer pipeline between the new Wilhelmshaven site and the gas grid, Mr. Kissing, the pipeline builder for Open Grid Europe GmbH, has built a team with experts in everything from infrastructure planning to environmental management. in Archeology and law.

Cooling the natural gas to 260 degrees Fahrenheit turns it into a liquid that can be shipped in ocean liners to terminals, where it can be turned into gas. A floating LNG facility is a gas facility on a special large tank that receives liquid gas from another tank and returns it to the gas station.

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The ship that will be home to the Wilhelmshaven floating terminal is extremely difficult as it has to withstand the forces of two large gas tankers pushing each other. For Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co. KG, which is making jets, the first problem was to find the materials – fast. Ordering it from the factory would take months. Mathias Lüdicke, who is the manager of the company’s branch in Wilhelmshaven, said that the company needed to search for materials in Europe to find construction materials, including steel piles that will be driven under the sea.

The ports of Niedersachsen are called suppliers to France, the Netherlands, Finland and the Baltics. It found 165-meter steel piles at an idle construction site in Lithuania. The original plan called for smaller ones, so the company changed the plans.

To save time, the bulk of the 3,000 cubic meters of concrete needed for the project was brought in as large unfinished blocks, which were assembled like Lego pieces.

“We wanted things that were ready,” Lüdicke said. “So we changed the whole planning process as we went along, based on what was available.”

A jetty under construction at the floating natural gas terminal in Wilhelmshaven. Mathias Lüdicke, right, manager of the Wilhelmshaven branch of Niedersachsen Ports GmbH.

Niedersachsen Ports has suspended other operations to focus on the project. Staff worked over the Easter weekend to prepare the necessary documents. “No one paid attention to the extra time because we all said this has to work,” said Lüdicke.

The German government changed again. The legislature passed the LNG Acceleration Act, speeding up the process of evaluating, approving and awarding LNG projects.

“If there is an opportunity in this extreme situation, it is that we get rid of the sleeplessness, and sometimes, the grouchiness that exists in Germany,” Finance Minister Robert Habeck said in March about speeding up the construction of LNG terminals.

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Some major construction projects have moved slowly in Germany. In 2020, Berlin opened its new airport nine years back. Stuttgart’s new railway, under construction since 2010, is expected to open in 2025, after years of delays and ballooning costs.

The state of Niedersachsen issued the necessary permits for the LNG terminal on May 1, International Workers’ Day, Sunday. “It’s not the day you expect this to happen,” said Olaf Lies, the state’s finance minister. “We needed a new German speed.”

A police boat passes by the ‘Uniper’ LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) construction site in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) (AP Newsroom)

Similar projects in other European countries have been criticized by activists against new oil installations, who say such projects harm the environment.

In Italy, a floating LNG terminal in the Tuscan port of Piombino is due to start operating next May. But several local groups protested, saying the project posed a risk to residents and the environment. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said that stopping a new ship in Piombino is important for Italy’s economy and national security.

In Germany, the new pipeline will cross the annual migration route of frogs. In order to prevent the creatures from entering the hole where the pipe will be buried, Mr. Kissing’s team built frog fences. Sometimes, experts have to build new bat caves.

When he started digging, he found another problem. The soil in the area is rich in sulfuric acid, which can sometimes become toxic if exposed to the air for long periods of time.

Also, the groundwater level was very high. The drains had to be dry so that the pipes could be sewn together.

To solve all these problems, 800 Kissing workers worked on a 400-foot extension, draining the canals with pumps, and then refilling them.

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“You can run as fast as you want, but dirt is dirt,” Kissing said as he walked around the property on a recent rainy morning.

Pipeline project manager Franz-Josef Kissing, left. Mr Kissing, right, inspects the link under construction between the pipelines and the German gas grid.

The groundwater also contained more iron than normal. So the company had to build special iron removal equipment to filter the water before dumping it in nearby fields.

Connecting a new gas pipeline to Germany presented another challenge. It has to connect to the existing gas pipeline from Norway, which has been of great importance to Germany and cannot be closed for the connection work to be carried out in the coming days. A bypass device had to be created to allow the air to circulate properly.

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Before starting the construction of the airport, the ports of Niedersachsen first had to examine the unexploded ordnance of World War II. Wilhelmshaven, Germany’s only deep water port, was heavily bombed during the war. The company looked at the bottom of the ocean and removed the small pieces of equipment.

In September, with four months to go before the deadline, a problem arose that would have prevented it from being completed on time. The Wilhelmshaven barge, which was a port for loading and unloading barges in the middle of the water, had a mechanical failure, causing the port to close. The piles needed for the airport, which were being pulled together at the port, were rejected there.

Mr. Lüdicke met with the authorities in charge of the waterways and the German navy and worked out a way to solve the problem. The harbor allowed ships carrying the piles to pass through the lock with one gate open, but only when the tide was such that the water was level.

“It was a great performance, a great collaboration,” said Lüdicke. “If we hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t have been able to start the terminal this year.”

Open Grid Europe GmbH workers at the pipeline construction site, left. The iron removal plant, on the right, was built to filter groundwater for discharge into nearby fields.

In September, an explosion damaged the Nord Stream pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea several hundred kilometers east of Wilhelmshaven, which European officials called an act of sabotage. This caused concern throughout Europe about the damage to the electrical infrastructure. The local police stationed officers along the route of the new pipeline, and boats roamed the canal.

Mr. Lüdicke hopes that the weather will improve as his team races to the finish line. Bad weather can cause delays, and hurricanes often stop work. There is still work to be done and tests to be carried out before the floating facility, the 965-foot Hoegh Esperanza, can arrive in Wilhelmshaven in the coming days and air can begin to flow.

Utility Uniper SE, which Germany recently agreed to set up in the world and which will operate the facility, said that if everything goes according to plan, the first LNG ship will arrive early next year.

“If we have bad weather, this will cause problems and delay things,” said Lüdicke. “We’re so close.”

Margherita Stancati contributed to this story.

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