Can the German Economy Minister keep the lights on this winter? | Germany

That Robert Habeck, Germany’s economic minister in his recent pre-ministerial life, wrote a children’s book in which a girl named Emily experiences “how exciting a nighttime power outage can be” may still haunt him.

These days, Habek has the daunting task of ensuring that the light on Europe’s largest economy does not truly go out. And even if the Germans are hoarding candles and camping stoves, as they did not so long ago with toilet paper and pasta, the prospect of blackouts and cold in their homes is more frightening than happy. Reports of people illegally chopping trees for fuel were reminiscent of post-war squalor, when Berlin’s Tiergarten park was completely destroyed as the Germans tried to keep warm.

But a power outage is not all that unrealistic, since Moscow shut down the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline more than a week ago. Habek risked appearing more than triumphant when he told the Bundestag on Thursday that “now we are not dependent on Russian gas for a week”; it’s not about him and not about Germany, but that Putin has reduced Moscow’s influence on Europe through the supply of energy resources.

While the shutdown may have helped ease the conscience of many Germans a little, who felt that every time they turned on the shower they were supporting the Russian war, Habek now has more responsibility than any other minister, even Chancellor Olaf Scholz. . He should also try to save the economy amid gloomy forecasts that skyrocketing energy prices and high inflation will push the country into recession next year.

Bakers in northern Germany turned off their lights on Thursday in protest at how they were excluded from the government’s cumbersome sound. Energiekostendämpfungsprogramm, to help pay the bills of energy-intensive industries, from glass manufacturers to wallpaper manufacturers. “Today is light, and tomorrow to bake?” – such a slogan was posted on the door of a bakery in the wealthy Hamburg district of Blankenese. “Bread can still become a luxury that only rich people can afford,” said the owner, desperate for recognition that her gas supplier has canceled her contract and she faces a monthly gas bill that has risen from 3,800 euros ( £3,300) up to €8,000.

Just a few months ago, many people regularly glanced at the numbers on the coronavirus. These days it Gasspeicher-Fullstand – the level of filling of the gas storage – attracts increased attention. On Friday, 47 underground structures across the country were 87% full thanks to imports from other countries, namely Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. Sounds like a lot, but that’s only part of the picture, since when fully loaded, the facilities contain only 28% of the total amount of gas used by Germany in an average year. The goal is to fill 95% of production capacity by November 1, but a harsh winter or any technical problems could see stores empty long before the winter is over. And we also need to think about next winter, when the shops are likely to be empty, and no Russian gas is expected.

The industry has already reduced its use by more than a fifth (but with consequences – ammonia production has decreased by about 70%) and is currently “saving” about 300 gigawatt-hours per day. Considering that gas usage can reach 5,000 GWh on cold winter days, this is just a drop in the bucket.

Energy experts say that despite Scholz’s claim that Germany will have enough energy to get through the winter, it’s too early to be optimistic. Already in colder than usual September, consumption was higher than expected.

Households are being urged to cut their consumption by about 20%, but expected higher household bills, which could encourage saving, have in many cases not yet reached the threshold. The government, trying not to sound alarmist, has so far done little to encourage domestic savings, and instead the focus has been on lowering the temperature of swimming pools or turning off the lights on the Brandenburg Gate. Habek has often said he’s cut showers to a minimum and installed a water-saving shower head, but is also wary of appearing condescending.

Hope is pinned on liquefied natural gas, which Germany expects to receive through two state-chartered floating terminals at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel due to be operational by the end of the year, and through a third private consortium at Lubmin. However, energy market experts warn that demand for LNG could rise sharply in winter, especially in Asia.

A mild winter could have a significant impact, but there is now growing pressure on the coalition government from its own ranks — FDP business supporters — and opposition conservatives to reverse Angela Merkel’s 2011 commitment in response to the Fukushima disaster to abandon nuclear energy.

Habek, a leading member of the Green Party, whose founding principles were its outright opposition to nuclear power, tried to depoliticize the decision on whether to keep the three remaining plants on after a planned outage in December with a stress test involving the national power grid. the operators concluded that the danger of a power outage could not be ruled out, so two of the three stations had to be put on standby mode. The decision has drawn derision and contempt: Greens supporters fear it could mean a slow return to nuclear power and, in addition to slurry, a German term for a mess, one of the plant operators called the plans “technically unfeasible”. Some say that the operator is simply angry at the financial loss that means for his company to be in “standby mode” rather than fully operational.

But in the near future, Germany is faced with nothing less than weighing which is greater – its anxiety about nuclear power or blackouts.

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