Will Germany’s economy minister be able to keep the lights on this winter?

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 nighttime blackout can be” might yet come back to haunt him.

These days, Habeck is tasked with the daunting task of making sure the lights don’t go out for real in Europe’s biggest economy. And even though the Germans have hoarded candles and camping stoves, just as they did not so long ago with toilet paper and pasta, they consider the prospect of a blackout and cold houses is more scary than exciting. Reports of people illegally felling trees for fuel have revived memories of post-war squalor, when Berlin’s Tiergarten park was stripped as the Germans tried to keep warm.

But a blackout isn’t so unrealistic since Moscow shut down the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline more than a week ago. Habeck risked sounding more than a little triumphalist when he remarked in the Bundestag on Thursday that “we have now been independent of Russian gas for a week”; it is not his or Germany’s doing, but Putin’s, that he reduced Moscow’s influence on Europe via energy supply.

Although the cut may have helped ease the conscience of many Germans who felt that every time they turned on the shower they were supporting Russia’s war, Habeck currently bears more responsibility than any other minister, even Chancellor Olaf Scholz. . He must also try to keep the economy going despite gloomy forecasts that, due to soaring energy costs and high inflation, the country will slide into recession next year.

On Thursday, bakers in northern Germany turned off their lights in protest at how they had been left out of the government’s heavy poll energy expenditure control program, to help pay the bills for energy-intensive industries, from glass makers to wallpaper. “Lights today, ovens tomorrow?” was the slogan displayed on the door of a bakery in Hamburg’s affluent Blankenese district. “Bread could still become a luxury item that only the rich can afford,” said the owner, desperate to see her gas supplier cancel her contract and she was facing a monthly gas bill that was increased from €3,800 (£3,300) to €8,000.

Just a few months ago, many people were regularly looking at the coronavirus numbers. These days it’s the gas storage level – filling level of the gas storage – which attracts feverish attention. On Friday, the country’s 47 underground facilities were 87% full, thanks to imports from other countries, namely Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. That sounds high, but that’s only part of the picture, because when full, the facilities only contain 28% of the total amount of gas Germany uses in an average year. . The objective is to reach 95% capacity by November 1, but a harsh winter or any technical incident could lead to stores being emptied well before the end of winter. And you also have to think about next winter, when the stores will probably be empty and there will be no more Russian gas in sight.

The industry has already reduced its consumption by more than a fifth (but with consequences – ammonia production is down by around 70%) and is currently “saving” around 300 gigawatt hours per day. Given that gas consumption can reach 5,000 GWh during cold winter days, this is just a drop in the ocean.

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

Households are ordered to reduce their consumption by around 20% but the expected increase in household bills which could encourage savings has not yet landed on the doormat in many cases. The government, keen not to sound alarmist, has done little so far to encourage domestic savings and instead focused on lowering the temperature of swimming pools or switching off the lights at the Brandenburg Gate . Habeck has often made a point of saying he’s reduced his showers to a minimum and installed a water-saving showerhead, but was also wary of appearing condescending.

The hope lies in the liquid gas that Germany expects to receive via two state-chartered floating terminals in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel, due to come into operation at the end of the year, and a third by a consortium private in Lubmin. Energy market experts warn, however, that demand for LNG could be fierce in winter, especially from Asia.

A mild winter could have a significant impact, but pressure is now mounting on the coalition government from within its own ranks – the pro-business FDP – and the opposition Tories, for a reversal of the pledge by Angela Merkel in 2011 in response to the Fukushima disaster to phase out nuclear power.

Habeck, a leading member of a Green party whose founding tenets were his outright opposition to nuclear power, had tried to depoliticize the decision whether to maintain three remaining plants beyond a scheduled shutdown in December, With a stress test involving national grid operators concluding that the danger of blackouts could not be ruled out, two out of three plants would therefore have to be placed in emergency standby mode. The decision has drawn ridicule and contempt: Green supporters fear it will mark the slow return to nuclear power and, added to the disorder, a German term for a mess, one of the plant operators called the plans “technically unfeasible”. Some said the operator was simply angry at the financial loss to their business of being in “sleep” mode rather than fully operational mode.

But in the immediate future, Germany is now faced with nothing less than weighing what is more important – its angst over atomic energy or a blackout.

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