‘Employees have a right to work from home’: Calls for German heatwave action plan

The mercury is rising and experts believe extreme temperatures will become more frequent in future. How should the country deal with it?

'Employees have a right to work from home': Calls for German heatwave action plan
Greens are calling for 'home office' on hot days. Photo: DPA

As record-breaking temperatures take hold, people in Germany are trying to get through the uncomfortable weather.

But one political party says the country should be better prepared for heatwaves – especially as researchers believe they will be more common (and even hotter) in future.

The Greens say that during extreme heat employees should be able to work from home and those who have to do their job outdoors should be given “hitzefrei” (free from the heat) leave. They also say elderly and sick people need more attention.

It's part of their so-called “heat action plan”. “We must prepare ourselves for the fact that heatwaves will continue to increase with the ongoing climate crisis,” the party said.

The plan, seen by Spiegel, was drawn up by Anton Hofreiter, leader of the Green parliamentary group, and Bettina Hoffmann, the Greens' environmental expert. 

Among other things, Hofreiter and Hoffmann call for a “right to 'home office' for all employees, “unless there are operational reasons” that don't allow that.

Employees who work outdoors, for example on construction sites, in agriculture or cleaning buildings, must be granted a “right to be free of heat in the event of heat hazardous to health”.

However, employers' groups slammed the demand, saying it was unrealistic, reported DPA.

READ ALSO: Climate crisis: Berlin to be 'as hot as Australia in 30 years'

The paper claims that the coalition, made up of Angela Merkel's conservative party (the CDU and sister party the CSU) as well as the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), is not doing enough to protect people from the heat.

So far, the federal government has published non-binding recommendations for action, but has not initiated a joint action plan by the federal and state governments on how to deal with rising temperatures.

“Heatwaves are a serious problem for elderly and sick people,” Hofreiter told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

'Germany should look to France'

The Greens cite France as a role model. The government there is already implementing a multi-stage heat action plan.

“We urgently need a coordinated heat action plan to prepare our society for the extreme heat and protect our health,” Hofreiter said.

According to figures from the Robert Koch Institute, more than a thousand people died in the states of Berlin and Hesse alone during the summer of 2018 as a result of the heat.

People cooling down in Passau, Bavaria. Photo: DPA

The Greens want to see nationwide “monitoring of heat-related deaths” so more lives can ultimately be saved.

“The topic of climate change and health must be given much greater consideration in medical studies,” Hoffmann said.

People who are particularly susceptible to heat, such as the elderly, “should be protected from heat exposure”.

The party suggests a network of professional and neighbour support services be launched where volunteers would take care of people at risk. Meanwhile “cool rooms” could be set up in health care facilities.

As part of their plan, the party also demands more green spaces in cities.

“Trees, parks, green open spaces and walkways” act like “large cooling air-conditioning systems,” say Hofreiter and Hoffmann. 

Within the framework of urban development funding, the government is already set to provide financial support for the installation of free drinking water stations in the inner cities and heat hotspots, as well as at bus stops and train stations.

Useful rain

And even if thunderstorms come with the heat during the summer months, the Greens believe this could be useful.

They want to see more water from “heavy rainfall” be stored in underground water reservoirs that allow rainwater to seep away.

“At the same time, it can be used to cool our cities and relieve the burden on the sewage system,” they said.

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Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

The more the sun shines in the southern German town of Aurach, the more likely it is that Jens Husemann's solar panels will be disconnected from the grid -- an exasperating paradox at a time when Germany is navigating an energy supply crisis.

Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

“It’s being switched off every day,” Husemann told AFP during a recent sunny spell, saying there had been more than 120 days of forced shutdowns so far this year.

Husemann, who runs an energy conversion business near Munich, also owns a sprawling solar power system on the flat roof of a transport company in Aurach, Bavaria.

The energy generated flows into power lines run by grid operator N-Ergie, which then distributes it on the network.

But in sunny weather, the power lines are becoming overloaded — leading the grid operator to cut off supply from the solar panels.

“It’s a betrayal of the population,” said Husemann, pointing to soaring electricity prices and a continued push to install more solar panels across Germany.

Europe’s biggest economy is eyeing an ambitious switch to renewables making up 80 percent of its electricity from 2030 in a bid to go carbon neutral.

N-ergie thermal power station

The thermal power station of energy supplier N-Ergie in Nuremberg, southern Germany. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put a spanner in the works.

Moscow has cut gas supplies to Germany by 80 percent, in what is believed to be a bid to weaken the European powerhouse’s resolve in backing Ukraine.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?

As a result, Berlin has been scrambling for alternative sources across the world to replace the shortfall.

This makes it all the more frustrating for Husemann, whose solar panels normally generate enough electricity for 50 households. With the repeated shutdowns, he suspects they will only supply half of their capacity by the end
of the year.

Grid bottlenecks

Grid operator N-Ergie, which is responsible for harvesting electricity from Husemann’s panels, admits the situation is less than ideal.

There were 257 days last year when it had to cut off supply from solar panels on parts of the grid.

“We are currently witnessing — and this is a good thing — an unprecedented boom in photovoltaic parks,” Rainer Kleedoerfer, head of N-Ergie’s development department, told AFP.

An employee of energy supplier N-ERGIE working at the company's network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany. 

An employee of energy supplier N-Ergie working at the company’s network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany.  (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But while it takes just a couple of years to commission a solar power plant, updating the necessary infrastructure takes between five and 10 years, he said.

“The number of interventions and the amount of curtailed energy have increased continuously in recent years” as a result, according to N-Ergie spokesman Michael Enderlein.

“The likelihood is that grid bottlenecks will actually increase in the coming years,” while resolving them will take several more years, Enderlein said.

According to Carsten Koenig, managing director of the German Solar Industry Association, the problem is not unique to solar power and also affects wind energy.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Solar bottlenecks tend to be regional and temporary, he said. “Occasionally, however, we hear that especially in rural areas in Bavaria, the shutdowns are more frequent.”

2.4 million households

Koenig agrees the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“This will be especially true if political measures aimed at sufficiently expanding the power grid in Germany… drag on for too long,” he said.

Some 6.1 terawatt hours of electricity from renewables had to be curtailed in 2020, according to the most recent figures available.

With an average consumption of around 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in a two-person household, this would have been enough to power around 2.4 million households.

A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Network Agency said it did not share the belief that “it will not be possible to expand the network in line with demand in the coming years”.

Only some aspects of the expansion are seeing delays, the spokesman said — mainly due to slow approval procedures and a lack of specialist companies to do the work.

According to Husemann there have also been delays to the payments he is supposed to receive in return for the solar power he supplies — or cannot supply.

He said he is already owed around 35,000 euros ($35,600) for electricity produced so far this year that has never found its way into a socket.