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Reader question: Should I invest in an electric heater in Germany this winter?

With gas prices on the rise in Germany, is it worth investing in a small electric heater rather than cranking up your home heating system?

Gas heaters on display in Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning.
Electric heaters are among the many heating devices lining store shelves right now, like these on display in on display in a Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

As gas prices skyrocket in Germany, largely fuelled by decreasing dependence on Russian gas and worries that the country could turn off the taps completely, many are worried that they won’t be able to foot their heating bill this winter.

A year ago, the cost of a megawatt hour of gas was around €20. By July, this had risen to around €140 per megawatt hour, leading to fears that bills could be as much as eight times higher than before when the colder months come.

READ ALSO: German households could see ‘four-digit rise’ in energy costs this winter

“With the alarming predictions about gas prices and heating costs for this winter, would using a small electric heater be SLIGHTLY cheaper and help reduce gas usage?” one Local reader asked us recently. 

“I have a small home office so will need some heat but the large radiator now seems a little scary financially.”

Cutting costs?

Johnson is not alone in considering investing in a home heater ahead of the winter. 

Sales of the devices have already shot up: in the first half of the year, around 600,000 were snapped up by shoppers in Germany, a full 35 percent more than in the same period last year, according to market research company GfK.

But these heating devices can actually have the opposite of the intended effect to cut costs, warn consumer protection experts.

At the moment, electricity costs in Germany are currently at an average of 30 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to oil and gas costs of 15 cents per kilowatt hour. This means that using electric heaters would be almost double the cost of using a radiator.

“You don’t save money with fan heaters; on the contrary, you drive up your electricity bill,” Ramona Pop, chairwoman of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

“In addition, there is the danger that the power distribution networks will be overloaded if massive numbers of electric heaters are turned on,” added Pop. 

Electric heaters are known as 'energy guzzlers' and their use could hurt the electricity grid in Germany. (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)
Electric heaters are known as ‘energy guzzlers’ and their use could hurt the electricity grid in Germany. (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)

Other methods to save energy

Germany’s Association of Energy Companies and the Federal Network Agency advises people to simply keep the temperature in rooms lower, even if it means bundling up more indoors, in order to save on energy costs.

“Electronic heating devices such as fan heaters, radiators and convectors are not made to replace heating and should therefore only be used with caution,” a spokeswoman for the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) told the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe.

Many German housing contracts furthermore have a clause that radiator heating needs to be set to a minimum during the winter ‘Heizperiode’ (heating period) – usually to the two setting out of a maximum of five.

Also known as the Heizsaison, this chillier time officially starts around October 30th and ends on April 30th. However, the German government is looking into changing this law to allow people with these contracts to lower temperatures further if they choose to.

Other methods of saving on energy costs – while ensuring that rooms still stay warm enough – include making sure that old windows are properly sealed and ventilating properly, since dry air heats up more quickly than stuffy humid air. 

As water accounts for 13 percent of heating costs in Germany, it’s also worth investing in a water saving shower head and taking shorter showers instead of longer baths. 

READ ALSO: 8 simple ways to save on heating costs in Germany

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Gas crunch pushes German glassmaker to the brink

In 400 years, Heinz-Glas, one of the world's biggest producers of glass perfume bottles, has seen off many crises - including World Wars and the oil shock of the 1970s in the last century alone. But Germany's current energy emergency strikes at the heart of its very existence.

Gas crunch pushes German glassmaker to the brink

“We are experiencing an exceptional situation,” Murat Agac, deputy chief executive of the family-owned company founded in 1622, told AFP.

“If there is a halt in gas supplies… then glass production will very likely disappear” from Germany, he said.

To make glass, sand is heated to temperatures of up to 1,600C and gas is the most frequently chosen source of energy.

Until recently, a glut of gas flowing to Germany via a pipeline from Russia had helped keep production costs low, allowing Heinz-Glas to book annual revenues of some €300 million.

With competitive prices, exports made up 80 percent of the glassmaker’s total output.

But this economic model is now being called into question after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage – Five challenges facing Germany right now 

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

Berlin is scrambling for alternative energy sources to replace the resource that once made up 55 percent of its total gas imports.

The consequence: soaring energy prices.

For Heinz-Glas, that has meant a “ten- to 20-fold increase” in costs compared to 2019, said Agac.

READ ALSO: German government fears millions of heating systems could fail in winter

‘3,000 football fields of solar panels’ 

Not only Heinz-Glas, much of Germany’s industry is buckling under the gas supply crunch.

Many companies are drawing up emergency plans as the German government has warned that Russian gas could stop flowing entirely.

With winter looming, the crisis is reaching fever pitch.

Chemicals giant BASF is looking at replacing gas with fuel oil in its second-biggest German factory.

Henkel, which specialises in adhesives and sealants, is considering whether its employees can work from home.

But the consequences of a total halt in Russian gas flows could be irreparable for many companies.

At the Heinz-Glas factory in Kleintettau, opened in 1661, around 70 tonnes of small glass bottles are produced each day, moulded by the heat of the furnaces.

An employee inspects flacons on an assembly line at the German glass producer Heinz-Glas Group in Kleintettau, Germany on August 3rd, 2022.

An employee inspects flacons on an assembly line at the German glass producer Heinz-Glas Group in Kleintettau, Germany on August 3rd, 2022. Photo: Ronny Hartmann / AFP

The delicate vessels adorned with intricate motifs are then sent to the company’s clients — including its biggest, French group L’Oreal — which fill them with perfume.

At every step of the production process — from making the material with quartz sand to the final sculpting of the bottle — heat is essential.

At the company’s second-biggest factory in the mountain village of Piesau, a cut in gas would permanently damage its glass furnace, said Agac.

To ward off the danger in the short term, Heinz-Glas has invested in stocks of liquefied gas, which can be driven in by trucks.

But that triples the energy bill, and would still not be sufficient – the two German factories need the equivalent of “3,000 football fields of solar
panels” to operate.

In the long term, replacing the entire gas system with electric infrastructure would cost €50 million, Agac said, a sum which the company cannot afford.

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

Even in the factory of Kleintettau, where furnaces are powered by electricity, around 40 percent of the industrial processes still require gas.

“We need state support,” said Agac, warning that the firm may otherwise be forced to shift production elsewhere, such as India or China, where it already has a factory.

For the 1,500 employees of the company in Germany, the future looks cloudy.

“I’ve reached an age when it doesn’t matter so much for me anymore. But younger people must be fearing job losses,” said Michaela Trebes, 61, inspecting hundreds of little flasks emerging from the production lines.

But for now, the management remains optimistic that Heinz-Glas can pull through.

Since 1622, “there have been enough crises… in the 20th century alone, World War I, World War II, the oil crisis in the 70s, many, many critical situations. We survived them all,” said Agac.

“We will somehow also overcome this crisis.”

By Florian CAZERES