Germany is rationing hot water, dimming its streetlights and closing swimming pools as the impact of its energy shortages begins to spread from industry to offices, leisure centers and homes.
A huge rise in gas prices, triggered by Russia’s move last month to severely cut supplies to Germany, has plunged Europe’s largest economy into its worst energy crisis since the 1973 oil price shock.
Gas importers and utilities are struggling to survive as consumer bills skyrocket and some warn of rising tensions.
“The situation is more than dramatic,” said Axel Gedaschko, chairman of the Association of German Housing Companies GdW. “The social peace of Germany is in great danger.”
As tensions escalate over Russia’s war in Ukraine, officials fear the situation could worsen. On Monday, Russia shut down its main pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 1, for 10 days of scheduled maintenance. Many in Berlin fear it will never open again.
Germany took a crucial step towards gas rationing last month when Economy Minister Robert Habeck activated the second stage of the country’s gas emergency plan. “The situation in the gas market is tense and unfortunately we cannot guarantee that it will not get worse,” he said on Tuesday. “We must be prepared for the situation to become critical.”
Habeck, who says he now showers less, appealed to the population to save energy – and municipalities and property owners followed the call.
On Thursday, Vonovia, the country’s largest apartment rental company, announced that it would lower the temperature of its tenants’ gas central heating to 17C between 11pm and 6am. The measure would save 8 percent heating costs, it said.
A housing association in Dippoldiswalde, Saxony, near the Czech border, went a step further this week and said it was rationing hot water supplies to tenants. From now on you can only take a hot shower between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“As we announced in our general meeting, we have to save for the winter,” says a notice in the affected blocks.
Such measures could become routine in the coming weeks. Helmut Dedy, chairman of the German Association of Cities, said that “society as a whole” must now reduce its energy consumption and save in summer “so that we have warm homes in winter”.
“Every kilowatt hour that we save helps to fill the gas storage facility a little more,” he said.
Dedy appealed to city councils across the country to take immediate action. He had a few suggestions: turn off traffic lights at night; turn off hot water in community buildings, museums and sports centers; adjust air conditioners; and stop illuminating historic buildings.
Some have already taken action. The Lahn-Dill district near Frankfurt will switch off the hot water in its 86 schools and 60 gyms from mid-September to save 100,000 euros in energy costs, and Düsseldorf has temporarily closed a huge swimming pool complex, the Münster-Therme.
Meanwhile, Berlin has turned down the thermostat in outdoor pools, lowering their temperature by 2 degrees. In western Germany, Cologne dims its street lighting to 70 percent of full strength from 11 p.m.
Private customers are also stepping in and reactivating wood-burning stoves and stoves. Sales of firewood, wood pellets and coal as well as gas cylinders and cartridges have skyrocketed.
It is unclear to what extent such measures will mitigate the impact of higher heating bills. According to the GdW, the Ukraine war will drive up energy prices for consumers by 71 to 200 percent, resulting in additional annual costs of 1,000 to 2,700 euros for a one-person household and up to 3,800 euros for four people. compared to the 2021 level.
A new law in the Bundestag could increase the costs even further. This would allow the government to impose an emergency levy on all gas consumers to spread the cost of higher prices more evenly. It aims to prevent gas importers from going bankrupt, a scenario ministers fear could see a Lehman Brothers-style collapse of the entire sector. Uniper, the largest importer of Russian gas in Germany, is already in talks with officials about a government bailout that experts say could be as high as €9 billion.
German consumers – both in industry and in private households – are reducing their energy consumption. According to a study by the Hertie School in Berlin, industrial gas consumption fell by 11 percent in March and April this year compared to the same period in 2021, and by 6 percent in private households.
Much more needs to be done, said Lion Hirth, one of the study’s co-authors. “Unfortunately, the drop in demand so far is far from sufficient to completely close the supply gap that is looming this winter,” he said.
In his appeal to Germany’s local authorities this week, Dedy made a similar argument. “The situation is very serious,” he said. “It is already clear that we have to leave our comfort zone.”