That Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister in his recent, pre-ministerial life, wrote a children’s book in which a girl called Emily experiences “how exciting a night-time power cut can be” may yet come back to haunt him.
These days, Habeck is charged with the daunting task of ensuring that the lights do not go out in for real in Europe’s largest economy. And even if Germans have been hoarding candles and camping stoves, just as not so long ago they were doing with toilet paper and pasta, they consider the prospect of a blackout and cold homes to be scary rather than exciting. Reports of people illegally felling trees for fuel have brought back memories of postwar squalor, when Berlin’s Tiergarten park was stripped bare as Germans tried to keep warm.
But a blackout is not so unrealistic since Moscow closed down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline more than a week ago. Habeck was in danger of appearing more than a little triumphalist when he remarked to the Bundestag on Thursday that “we’ve now been independent of Russian gas for a week”; it was not him, or Germany, but Putin who reduced Moscow’s leverage on Europe via energy supplies.
While the cutoff may perhaps have helped to ease a little the conscience of many Germans who have felt that every time they turned on the shower they were supporting Russia’s war, more responsibility lies on Habeck’s shoulders right now than any other minister, even Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He must also try to keep the economy going amid gloomy predictions that owing to soaring energy costs and high inflation the country will slide into recession next year.
Bakers in northern Germany on Thursday turned off their lights in protest at the way they had been excluded from the government’s unwieldy sounding Energiekostendämpfungsprogramm, to provide help towards the bills of energy intensive industries, from glass to wallpaper manufacturers. “Lights today, ovens tomorrow?” was the slogan posted on the door of a bakery in the well-to-do Hamburg district of Blankenese. “Bread could yet become a luxury good that only rich people can afford,” the owner said, desperate for recognition that her gas provider had cancelled her contract and she was facing a monthly gas bill that had gone from €3,800 (£3,300) to €8,000.
Just a few months ago many people were regularly glancing at the coronavirus figures. These days it’s the Gasspeicher-Füllstand – gas storage filling level – that attracts feverish attention. On Friday the 47 subterranean facilities around the country were 87% full, thanks to imports from other countries, namely Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. It sounds high but is only part of the picture as when full, the facilities hold just 28% of the total amount of gas Germany uses in an average year. The aim is for 95% capacity by 1 November, but a harsh winter or any technical mishaps could cause the stores to empty well before winter is out. And there is also next winter to think of, when the stores will probably be empty with no Russian gas in sight.
Industry has already reduced its usage by more than a fifth (but with consequences – ammonia production is down by about 70%) and is currently “saving” about 300 gigawatt hours a day. Considering gas use can shoot up to 5,000 GWh on cold winter days, this is just a drop in the ocean.
Energy specialists say that despite Scholz’s insistence that Germany would have enough energy to get through the winter, it is too early to be optimistic. Already in a colder than usual September, consumption has been higher than expected.
Households are being urged to reduce their consumption by about 20% but the expected higher household bills that might encourage savings have in many cases not yet landed on the doormat. The government, careful not to appear alarmist, has done little so far to encourage domestic saving and the focus has instead been on turning swimming pool temperatures down or switching off illumination of the Brandenburg Gate. Habeck has frequently made a point of saying that he has reduced his showers to a minimum and fitted a water-saving shower head, but is also wary of appearing condescending.
Hope lies in the liquid gas that Germany expects to receive via two state-chartered floating terminals at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel, due to go into operation at the turn of the year, and a third by a private consortium in Lubmin. Energy market experts warn however that demand for LNG could be fierce in winter, particularly from Asia.
A mild winter could have a significant impact but pressure is now growing on the coalition government from within its own ranks – the pro-business FDP – and the opposition conservatives, for a reversal of Angela Merkel’s 2011 commitment made in response to the Fukushima disaster to withdraw from nuclear power.
Habeck, a leading member of a Green party whose founding principles were its outright opposition to nuclear power, had tried to depoliticise the decision over whether to keep three remaining plants on beyond a scheduled switch-off in December, with a stress test involving national grid operators concluding that the danger of energy blackouts could not be excluded, so two of three plants should be placed in emergency standby mode. The decision has attracted ridicule and scorn: Green supporters are wary this might mark the slow return to nuclear and, added to the schlamassel, a Yiddish-derived term for a mess, one of the plant’s operators has called the plans “technically unworkable”. Some have said the operator is simply angry at the financial loss that being in “standby” rather than fully operational mode means for his company.
But in immediate terms, Germany now faces nothing less than weighing up which is greater – its angst over atomic power or a blackout.
• This article was amended on 12 September 2022 to specify that the term schlamassel is a derivation from Yiddish.