Germany Examines Options for Energy Security

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The price war between Russia and Ukraine that shut down gas supplies to Europe last week has many European leaders calling for a more independent EU energy policy. It's also re-ignited the controversial debate in Germany over the country's pledge to phase out nuclear power by 2020.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Though the price war is significant, in part, because it slowed down gas supplies to other countries in Europe and now many European leaders are calling for a more independent energy policy. There's also a new debate in Germany over the country's pledge to phase out nuclear power by the year 2020. NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.

(Soundbite of voices)

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

On a recent afternoon, about a dozen young restaurant workers gather in a sterile makeshift kitchen above the downtown Berlin office of Gassa Gae(ph), the city's largest natural gas company. An energy consultant in a white lab coat gives a hands-on demonstration in a class designed to teach the public how to use gas stoves safety and efficiently.

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

MARTIN: `The advantage of gas is that you can adjust it gradually,' she says as a student turns on the stove. `When you reduce the flame, you use less energy.'

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

MARTIN: It's a simple conservation message with an implicit warning not to take gas for granted. It's a lesson Germany and other EU countries are learning after much of their gas supplies were temporary disrupted by Russia last week. When Ukraine refused to pay a fivefold increase in the price of gas, Russia shut down gas running through Ukrainian pipelines, the same pipelines that supply Europe with about 80 percent of its natural gas. The two-day shutdown cut supplies by close to 30 percent in France and Italy, by half in the Czech Republic and Austria, and it ramped up calls for a more unified approach to energy security by the EU's energy commission chief Andres Piebalgs.

Mr. ANDRES PIEBALGS (EU's Energy Commission Chief): It is clear that Europe needs a clear and more collective and cohesive policy on security of energy supply.

MARTIN: In Germany, the supply disruption has prompted conservative politicians to reopen the debate about the government's renewed pledge to close its 19 nuclear power plants. Edmund Stoiber, the conservative leader in Bavaria, said the crisis illustrates the need for Germany to diversify its energy supplies, and that means keeping nuclear power as an option.

Mr. EDMUND STOIBERG (Conservative Leader, Bavaria): (Through Translator) I'm of the opinion that we have safe nuclear power plants and now we have a new situation in the security of our energy supply. Therefore, let's talk about whether or not we can let our safe nuclear power plants continue to run.

MARTIN: In a press conference last week, the minister of the environment, Seig Margabriel(ph), said diversification should come from renewables like wind or solar and that the government will not go back on its promise to phase out nuclear power.

Mr. SEIG MARGABRIEL (Minister of The Environment): (Through Translator) Prolonging the use of nuclear energy is not the answer. Instead, greater independence will come by developing an economical and ecological energy strategy to deal with current and future energy problems.

MARTIN: William Ramsey, the deputy director of the International Energy Agency in Paris, says it's not surprising that Germany and other European governments are re-evaluating unpopular energy sources like nuclear in an attempt to diversify supplies, but he says it's just as important to try to make current energy supplies more fluid across national boundaries. So that if and when disruptions occur, even the smallest and poorest EU countries are protected.

Mr. WILLIAM RAMSEY (International Energy Agency, Paris): There are large geologic stores of gas in Europe. Were those stores going to be available to help countries that were hit harder than others? Is there a commercial basis for moving those volumes of gas around? It's essential to start working now on understanding what the impediments are to a freer flow of gas to a more supple supply of gas and put the mechanisms in place that will allow this to happen.

MARTIN: The head of the EU's energy commission says he expects energy ministers to push for greater investment in liquified natural gas and alternative fuels in the wake of the recent shutdown. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she will make nuclear power a top issue at an energy summit in Germany this March.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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