How Germany Is Preparing for a Looming Energy Crisis
German officials issued a tentative sigh of relief last week, when Russian gas began flowing again through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to the European Union after its annual 10-day maintenance—only to have that relief turn to frustration a few days later, when the Russian company Gazprom announced it would further reduce the gas deliveries to just 20% of the pipeline’s capacity.
The reduced gas deliveries seemed to confirm many European leaders’ fears that Russia would use its energy supplies as leverage against its E.U. neighbors’ stance against the war in Ukraine. It also highlighted the bigger problem on the horizon: Germany, a country of 83 million and Europe’s biggest economy, is deeply dependent on Russian energy imports—essential for heating homes and powering German factories, among other things. If Russia cuts all gas supply, what will happen?
German leaders are preparing for this possibility, as well as the wider energy crisis it may trigger. They announced new measures that aim to reduce gas consumption and prepare other energy sources to compensate. “Russia is using the great power it has… to blackmail Europe,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor and economy minister, said last week. “We have to prepare ourselves for winter.”
Germany was close to halving its Russian gas imports by June. This is a drastic reduction from the 55% it received in February, before the invasion of Ukraine, down to just 26% at the end. Still, experts say it’s not enough to ensure a shortage-free winter.
Germany is already feeling the impact of the crisis, with high energy prices rising and inflation increasing. On Friday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the bailout of energy supplier Uniper, the country’s largest Russian gas importer which had been financially struggling ever since gas flows slowed. Some Berlin residents are being warned that this winter their heating bills could more than double.
Germany is not the only European country that is currently affected by its dependence on Russian gas. However, its inability to find alternatives and its limited domestic gas reserves make it vulnerable. It is part of its long-term shift to cleaner energy. Energiewende, Already, the country began to move away from the energy resources it could otherwise have used to counter gas shortages. The country intends to end coal use by 2030 and shut down its remaining nuclear power stations by the end this year.
But preparing for a possible worst-case energy crunch has led Germany to now temporarily authorize the reopening of several previously closed coal-fired power plants starting in October—and some officials have even suggested the possibility of keeping nuclear plants open beyond the end of the year.
In addition to this, officials’ latest plan, announced on July 21, requires Germany’s strategic gas storage reserves—established earlier this year in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—to be filled to 75% capacity by Sept. 1, 85% by Oct. 1 and 95% by Nov. 1, faster than previously planned. These reserve are at 67%.
Even if they were filled up to 100 percent, it would be difficult for them to last the winter. At current consumption rates, Germany’s government has estimated the stored gas could fully cover Germany’s energy needs for two to three months. Experts advise that urgent action must be taken to stop severe shortages.
“It’s a serious situation, but it’s not unmanageable,” says Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research. “It’s in our hands how good or bad this will be… we can avoid [a worst-case scenario] if we do a lot of things now.”
The government plans to increase and diversify its energy supplies for the future. On July 21st, it announced plans to reduce overall gas consumption. It asked people to do everything possible to save gas, including taking shorter showers, washing clothes at lower temperatures, and banning gas from heating private pools. For larger buildings, the government has imposed new guidelines regarding energy use: Common spaces such as hallways and offices should not be heated.
While the government promised to limit household costs by providing more funds for households to pay their winter energy bills, they warn that rising prices could continue to impact consumers. “One doesn’t know exactly how much [gas] will cost in November, but the bitter news is that it’s definitely a few hundred euros per household,” Habeck said Thursday.
Real shortages could have wide-ranging consequences in the winter. Apartment and office building leaders have suggested that they might place limits on hot water and temperatures during specific hours. One German leader also recommended sending students back to university for longer winter breaks in order to save energy.
And while the public continues to back Germany’s military support for Ukraine, which came after domestic and international pressure, a true energy crisis this winter could shift public opinion. Marcel Dirsus, a nonresident fellow and expert in German politics and foreign policy at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy, says Germans quickly rallied behind support for Ukraine when the war broke out, but that the support isn’t uniform and can’t necessarily be taken for granted. “As the costs … to ordinary voters have become more apparent, there have been more and more concerns that this public support may not be sustainable over the long run,” he says.
ZDF conducted a mid-July survey and found that 70% agreed support for Ukraine should be continued despite rising energy prices. However, only 35% responded to a question about Germany’s support for military operations, dropping 9 percentage points over the previous month.
The situation will affect more than Germans’ thermostats and pocketbooks: It also has implications for the country’s ambitious energy transition plans. It could mean that the country will need to increase coal production to reach its 2030 goals.
Kemfert said the looming crisis should be an opportunity for German leaders to make the difficult but long-needed changes to the country’s energy landscape, focusing on developing its renewable energy sources rather than restarting coal plants and remaining dependent on fossil fuels.
“That would be my hope: That this is really a wake-up call, the last one, for a real transition toward renewable energy,” she says. “And that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past which brought us to this situation.”
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