At the photovoltaic glass factory in Tschernitz, in eastern Germany, the noise from the machines does not cover concerns about the future of production if the Russian gas tap were shut down due to the war in Ukraine.
In the hangar with a white chimney on top, mechanical arms work to shape the glass plates for the producers of solar panels.
“We supply all major manufacturers in Europe,” explains Torsten Schroeter, General Manager of GMB Glasmanufaktur Brandenburg.
Every year, 10 million m2 of plates come out of the factory’s furnaces, giving off a bright red light and intense heat.
But to produce this essential glass with solar energy, you need… gas, a lot of gas.
Thanks to the pipelines connecting Russia to Germany, the resource is available in abundance.
But for how long?
Following Gazprom’s decision to suspend Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland from Wednesday, citing their refusal to pay in rubles, as demanded by Moscow, Germany fears becoming the next country on the list.
“Security of supply is currently guaranteed,” the Ministry of Economy and Climate said, voicing its “concern” after Gazprom’s announcement.
Especially since Berlin is also under increasing pressure from its allies to approve an embargo on Russian gas.
However, the government of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, along with environmentalists and liberals, insists a sudden halt in supplies would be devastating to the country’s economy.
And rightly so: Russia supplied 55% of German natural gas imports before the war, a share that has fallen to 40% in recent months.
– “No alternative” –
This refusal is debated within the German political class and among experts, some of whom believe the leading European power could withstand the shock.
In the camp of those for whom life without Russian gas is inconceivable in the short term, industrialists are on the front lines.
“A stop in the supply of Russian gas would mean a stoppage of production for us,” sums up the boss of GMB, which employs 300 people.
Stopping the gas flows would mean shutting down the kilns, causing irreparable damage.
This will require the company to “build everything from scratch,” which could take months or even years, according to Schroeter.
Because “there is no alternative” to Russian gas, he complains.
The use of coal or oil is not suitable. As for electricity, the company has already invested in a hybrid system that allows partial electric heating in its furnaces, but this only meets “10%” of its needs.
Hydrogen could replace natural gas, but its development is not yet sufficiently advanced in Germany.
The German government is knocking on all doors to diversify its supply sources, but does not believe it can do without the Russian supplier before mid-2024.
– “The cheapest” –
“The last decades, marked by the deregulation of the energy market, have led us to choose the cheapest gas supplied by the Russian gas pipeline,” admitted former Social Democratic Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel in early February.
An end to supplies would lead to “production stoppages”, “job losses” and “massive damage to installations,” the BDI, a powerful industrial lobby, argued for its part.
For example, the chemical giant BASF has warned that halving Russia’s gas supply would be enough to “stop” its emblematic site in Ludwighsafen (West), which employs nearly 30,000 people.
According to a report by the LBBW bank, the paper industry, steel and chemicals are among the most vulnerable to gas consumption.
Even without the embargo, German industry has already been weakened by rising energy prices, which rose 39.5% year over year in March, after rising 22.5% in February and 20.5% in January.
Result: glass factory Tschernitz struggles to stay competitive with the Chinese competition.
Nearly 170 gigawatt hours/hour of gas is used in the factory’s furnaces every year to heat the raw material – quartz or dolomite – to more than 1600 degrees and convert it into glass for solar panels.