Short showers and limited heating: Germany prepares for possible power cuts this winter

Berlin urges people to save on gas as fears grow that Russia will further reduce supply

Elena G. Sevillano
Corte energia Alemania
Maintenance work at the Uniper gas warehouse in Muhldorf (Germany).Krisztian Bocsi (Bloomberg)

Next winter will be the first without Russian gas, or at least without as much as Germany was used to getting to feed its powerful industrial sector and heat the homes of many of its 83 million residents. And that means a possible rationing for which the government of Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, is already preparing the population. For now the measures are preventive: it is about saving as much as possible in case there is a difficult winter ahead not only due to shortages, but also due to the drastic rise in fuel prices. A ubiquitous government campaign has been encouraging people to take shorter, colder showers to try to achieve a collective consumption saving of 10% compared to previous summers.

Warnings about what may come in winter are gaining ground in public discourse. A few days ago, Jens Kerstan, head of the environment department in Hamburg, said that the gas crisis – in the context of the confrontation with Moscow over the war in Ukraine – could lead to rationing of hot water in homes. In case of an emergency, he told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, hot water availability would have to be limited to certain hours of the day. The politician also noted that the city-state is considering lowering the maximum temperature of private heating.

Until very recently, it was hard to imagine that the dreaded gas rationing would become noticeable in private homes, half of which are heated by gas. It was believed that the stoppages would be first felt by industry, the main consumer of this hydrocarbon in Germany (35% of the total). But there are fears of widespread shortages following a two-thirds reduction of the gas supply that arrives from Russia through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, coupled with the possibility that a technical shutdown for infrastructure maintenance (scheduled between July 11 and 21) could become permanent.

This week, a housing cooperative in Dresden, in the east of the country, made headlines by announcing that it planned to restrict the supply of hot water to tenants in almost 300 of its 600 apartments in order to cut costs. It would only be available at certain peak times: early morning, noon and at night. Construction Minister Klara Geywitz was forced to issue a public reminder that the law does not allow hot water rationing, as an alarmed and angry spokesman for the German Tenants Association had already noted.

Landlords are required to provide hot water in their rental apartments 24 hours a day, but they are apparently allowed to reduce the maximum heating temperature. Vonovia, Germany’s largest real estate company, has started informing its tenants that this autumn the radiators will be running at a minimum at night. The company, which serves around half a million homes, wants to reduce gas consumption by 8% by restricting the temperature to 17ºC (62ºF) between 11pm and 6am. Tenant associations believe that this is also illegal, because, even though it is not regulated, several rulings have forced the temperature in homes to be kept at a minimum of 20ºC (68ºF). Vonovia says that its plan is feasible and defends that it is trying “to protect tenants from the horrendous increases in the gas bill.”

Uncertainty about the future of the gas supply is increasing day by day. Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, of The Greens, has presented a bill that gives the government more leeway in case of an emergency. Among other things, it allows laws to be passed by decree ordering energy savings, and it also speeds up the injection of public money into struggling energy companies. Habeck, who has become the visible face of the coalition government in the gas crisis, said that for now it is not necessary to resort to these tools, but it is important to have them available to apply them quickly if the situation deteriorates.

The cut in Russia’s gas supply through Nord Stream 1 – Russia alleged technical problems in June – has caught Germany in the process of filling its gas tanks, which this past Friday were at 63.2% of capacity. The government had set out to reach almost 100% by autumn, although even then the supply would not be guaranteed for the entire cold season. If Moscow further closes the tap, the gas in storage would be enough for about two and a half months of a normal, not excessively cold winter, warned the president of the Federal Network Agency, the authority in charge of gas, electricity, telecommunications, post and railways.

Meanwhile, the executive has accelerated construction of two of the four floating terminals of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the North Sea that will allow the fuel to be imported by ship, and it is also drafting laws to promote renewable energies and reduce dependence on fossil fuels as soon as possible.

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