Gas network: Worthless gas networks for municipalities

Gas network: Worthless gas networks for municipalities

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Refineries like this could become unnecessary in the future.

Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Patrick Pleul

Although the CDU has co-governed the green region for eight years, Baden-Württemberg is considered a pioneering state in terms of energy policy, for example in the implementation of municipal heat planning. For larger communities, municipal heat planning has been mandatory since the end of 2020. All other municipalities had to submit their heat plans by the end of 2023.

The federal level is significantly later: the deadline for mandatory heat planning is running, decided by the traffic lights last year, for large cities by mid-2026 and for smaller municipalities by mid-2028. Researchers from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) as well as the European University of Flensburg and the TU Berlin therefore took a look at the heat planning in Baden-Württemberg. The results can be read in the latest DIW weekly report.

The biggest problem in heat planning turned out to be the fragile future of the natural gas networks. In 2020, the share of natural gas in heating buildings nationwide was 45 percent. There are 522,000 kilometers of gas distribution networks in the ground, operated by 700 gas distribution network operators. This infrastructure will actually no longer be needed from 2045 if Germany wants to be climate neutral. In principle, the current heating law allows the use of natural gas until 2044. This should end a year later.

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The topic of gas networks has so far been avoided

The evaluation of the heat plans in Baden-Württemberg has now shown that the gas networks are a kind of tanker. “The issue of natural gas distribution networks has largely been avoided in the municipalities’ current heat plans,” says DIW energy economist Franziska Holz. However, Holz advises, municipalities should urgently address the issue, as unpleasant as it is. Otherwise they are heading for big problems.

The word “unpleasant” describes the problem quite pleasantly. In fact, the study shows that there is currently a lack of legal and financial framework to either gradually shut down and dismantle or repurpose the gas distribution networks. There aren’t many more options than these two.

The authors of the study see the buyback of gas networks by municipalities as one possibility. These would then have more influence on the gas supply and could reduce the size of the networks. But the heat transition would not have been achieved with so-called remunicipalization alone. Because up to now it has hardly been possible to reduce the size of the networks. The Energy Industry Act requires that existing networks continue to operate as long as only a few households are connected to the network.

Financial responsibilities

The cities and communities here are also in an economically difficult situation. Whether the gas network belongs to their municipal utility or a third company – the municipalities have so far benefited from the gas business and use it to finance other community tasks. “We also see the conflict of objectives between municipalities that have so far earned well from the natural gas business,” explains study author Franziska Holz. »That’s why we don’t think remunicipalization is recommended at any price.

Holz admits that in the event of remunicipalization, the municipality would also assume all financial obligations as well as possible future losses from the natural gas business – such as dismantling costs. The study first describes this conflict of objectives and recommends helping municipalities to open up alternative sources of income. Remunicipalization also has an advantage. It could lead to climate protection becoming a priority.

The debate, which has so far been largely under the political surface, could soon gain momentum if the processes accelerate. Because if many customers go without natural gas in the future, the network costs will have to be passed on to fewer and fewer customers, which in turn makes the fuel more expensive, which is why more gas customers drop out. As a result, municipalities would no longer be able to find interested parties when awarding new concession contracts for the gas networks. The network, which has become worthless, would then automatically fall to the municipality, which would remain sitting on it.

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