IN PICTURES: German climate activists pull ‘oil stunt’ at Chancellery

The war in Ukraine and its economic fallout has dominated the news agenda in Germany for months. In a bid to get climate change back on centre stage protestors have had to be bold.

German climate protestors are against further exploration for North Sea oil.
German climate protestors are against further exploration for North Sea oil. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

With climate change pushed down the news agenda as Germany tackles an energy crisis and the war in Ukraine, environmental activists are resorting to increasingly eye-catching stunts to get their message across.

This week, around a dozen activists sprayed a black liquid that looked like oil on the chancellery in Berlin and stood in front of the building with a banner that read: “Save oil instead of drilling.”

An 'oil spill' covers the floor next to the German Chancellery.

An ‘oil spill’ covers the floor next to the German Chancellery. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Dressed in orange high-visibility jackets and hard hats, the protesters were members of Letzte Generation (“Last Generation”) — a radical protest group that has become the new face of environmental activism in Germany.

“The government has ignored everything else: petitions have been written, a million people have taken to the streets,” said Lina Joansen, a 24-year-old student taking part in the protest.

The activists want a promise from the government that it will not drill for oil in the North Sea.

“We know that fossil fuels can only aggravate the climate catastrophe that is already happening,” said law student Myriam Herrmann, 25.

A protestor with 'oil' on her hands stands outside the Chancellery

A protestor with ‘oil’ on her hands stands outside the Chancellery (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Six months ago, a new coalition government was elected in Germany on a promise to make climate change one of its top priorities.

The Greens entered power for the first time in more than two decades, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) under Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the liberal FDP.

Ambitious climate plans

Green party Economy Minister Robert Habeck announced an ambitious 60 billion euro ($68 billion) climate investment plan and promised that German would end coal power and generate 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

But since then, climate concerns have been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, an acute energy crisis and record inflation.

Germany has accelerated plans to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) by sea, wants to explore new oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, and has even decided to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants.

The government has said it is still on target to meet its 2030 climate targets, but the protesters are not convinced.

A policeman stands guard in front of a sprayed portion of the Chancellery wall.

A policeman stands guard in front of a sprayed portion of the Chancellery wall. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Herrmann is “incredibly disappointed”, especially with Habeck. “We don’t have time for stopgap solutions any more,” she said.

Letzte Generation was born following a hunger strike last year by activists demanding a law to ban supermarkets from destroying unsold food products.

Earlier this year, small groups of Letzte Generation protesters blocked busy roads in Berlin by sitting down and glueing their hands to the tarmac.

German police carry a protestor away from the Chancellery.

German police carry a protestor away from the Chancellery. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

More than 100 were arrested.

A few days after the oil protest, the group once again employed these tactics, with about 65 protesters blocking the Frankfurter Tor intersection in Berlin’s Friedrichshain.

‘Legitimate means’

Civil disobedience is “an established mode of protest in the German environmental movement”, sociologist Michael Neuber told AFP, recalling the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and blockades by the Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Such protests have been overshadowed over the past two to three years by the massive student-led demonstrations of the Fridays for Future movement, but have more recently started to make a comeback.

“Civil disobedience attracts more attention than demonstrations,” said sociologist Dieter Rucht.

Fake ‘oil’ splashed around the Chancellory sent a striking message. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

“I see civil disobedience as a legitimate means of political protest, when it is peaceful,” 27-year-old Green party politician Deborah Duering told RBB radio this week, claiming to share the “anxiety” of the activists.

In February, by contrast, many voices within the Green party had criticised Letzte Generation for blocking the roads in Berlin.

For Herrmann, if politicians want the protests to stop, there is an easy solution.

“It is enough for Scholz and Habeck to declare that they no longer want to encourage oil drilling in the North Sea,” she 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.