This historic German town is falling apart in ‘slow-motion catastrophe’

A German town’s decision to invest in geothermal energy backfired badly after underground drilling went wrong and hundreds of buildings began to fall apart.

This historic German town is falling apart in 'slow-motion catastrophe'
Cracks have appeared in the town hall in Staufen. Photo: DPA

Staufen, a town of 8,100 inhabitants on the edge of the Black Forest, envisioned a blissful new green energy future when work on the project began in 2007. But when the drills hit groundwater, the pretty Baden Württenburg hamlet instead found itself in a battle for survival. 

More than 270 buildings have suffered fractures since the drills penetrated a layer of earth and struck groundwater in a yard right behind the town hall. 

“We’ve been in crisis mode for ten years,” Mayor Michael Benitz told news agency DPA. “It’s a slow-motion catastrophe.”

A red banner that hangs from the damaged town hall proclaims: “Staufen must not fall apart”. 

But in some cases it almost already has. 

“In combination with groundwater this layer of earth turns into cement, expanding the layers and forcing the earth upwards,” the mayor explained. 

”In some places, Staufen has risen 62 centimetres and moved more than 45 centimetres sideways. This is causing some buildings to pull apart and crack.” 

Two houses have already had to be torn down and the town fears that more may need to be demolished to avoid collapse.

“Fractures have become our daily companions” said Csaba-Peter Gaspar, an executive consultant whose own apartment in the town’s historic core has suffered major damage. 

A mediation body established to deal with the crisis, and the financial fallout for inhabitants, has so far received more than 400 claims. 

Fortunately the town has had the benefit of a show of solidarity from state and municipal authorities which have pitched in with financial assistance, enabling the imminent repair of damaged buildings.  

Staufen also reached an out-of-court settlement with the drilling firm to the tune of €1.175 million ($1.4 million).

And the town is not alone in suffering this kind of damage. Geologists from the regional authorities in nearby Freiburg said similar scenes had unfolded in the towns of Böblingen and Rudersberg after geothermal drilling went wrong. 

It’s Staufen however that has really become a byword for failed geothermal drilling. 

Before September 2007, geothermal energy was an industry in the ascendancy. But the sheen has since worn off and the mood around the technology changed to one of uncertainty, according to the Berlin-based German Geothermal Association.

The association insists however that, when executed properly after a full risk analysis, geothermal energy remains a sensible and environmentally friendly option. 

In Staufen meanwhile pumps are in operation around the clock to dredge groundwater and minimize damage. This has reduced the buildup of cement, with the ground now rising at an average level of just 1.8 millimetres per month, compared to several centimetres in the initial phases. 

But nobody can say for sure how long the pumps will need to be deployed. 

“I’m working on the assumption that we’ll be grappling with this problem for several more years, probably even decades,” said the mayor.


German government announces fresh relief package for high energy costs

With Russia's invasion in Ukraine exacerbating high energy and petrol prices, Germany is set to introduce a second relief package to limit the impact on consumers.

German government announces fresh relief package for high energy costs

The additional package of measures was announced by Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) on Sunday.

Speaking to DPA, Habeck said the wave of price increases throughout the energy sector were becoming increasingly difficult for households to bear.

“Extremely high heating costs, extremely high electricity prices, and extremely high fuel prices are putting a strain on households, and the lower the income, the more so,” he said. “The German government will therefore launch another relief package.”

The costs of heating and electricity have hit record highs in the past few months due to post-pandemic supply issues. 

This dramatic rise in prices has already prompted the government to introduce a range of measures to ease the burden on households, including abolishing the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) levy earlier than planned, offering grants to low-income households and increasing the commuter allowance. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s relief package against rising prices means for you

But since Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on February 24th, the attack has been driving up energy prices further, Habeck explained.

He added that fears of supply shortages and speculation on the market were currently making the situation worse. 

How will the package work?

When defining the new relief measures, the Economics Ministry will use three criteria, Habeck revealed. 

Firstly, the measures must span all areas of the energy market, including heating costs, electricity and mobility. 

Heating is the area where households are under the most pressure. The ministry estimates that the gas bill for an average family in an unrenovated one-family house will rise by about €2,000 this year. 

Secondly, the package should include measures to help save energy, such as reducing car emissions or replacing gas heating systems.

Thirdly, market-based incentives should be used to ensure that people who use less energy also have lower costs. 

“The government will now put together the entire package quickly and constructively in a working process,” said Habeck.

Fuel subsidy

The three-point plan outlined by the Green Party politician are not the only relief proposals being considered by the government.

According to reports in German daily Bild, Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FPD) is allegedly considering introducing a state fuel subsidy for car drivers.

The amount of the subsidy – which hasn’t yet been defined – would be deducted from a driver’s bill when paying at the petrol station. 

The operator of the petrol station would then have to submit the receipts to the tax authorities later in order to claim the money back. 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, fuel prices have risen dramatically in Germany: diesel has gone up by around 66 cents per litre, while a litre of E10 has gone up by around 45 cents.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The everyday products getting more expensive in Germany

As well as support for consumers, the government is currently working on a credit assistance programme to assist German companies that have been hit hard by the EU sanctions against Russia.

As reported by Bild on Saturday, bridging aid is also being discussed for companies that can no longer manage the sharp rise in raw material prices.

In addition, an extension of the shorter working hours (Kurzarbeit) scheme beyond June 30th is allegedly being examined, as well as a further increase in the commuter allowance.