OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ – and faces years of catching up

Germany's energy crisis is the result of decades of failing to take action - and now residents face tough times. Brian Melican looks at what went wrong and asks why Germany isn't doing more to become energy independent given the scale of the problem.

Berlin's Siegessäule (Victory Column) has been dimmed down as part of energy-saving measures.
Berlin's Siegessäule (Victory Column) has been dimmed down as part of energy-saving measures. Germany is facing a momentous task due to the energy crisis. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

One of the most common figures of speech in German political debate is “doing one’s homework”. “Da hat die Politik mal wieder ihre Hausaufgaben nicht gemacht!” – “Once again, the politicians haven’t done their homework!” – is the usual refrain when something has gone quite predictably awry. Part and parcel of day-to-day politics in Germany, into other cultural spheres, this accusation is considered insufferably patronising. During the Euro crisis of 2012, for instance, the Greeks grew tired of being told, like petulant teenagers, to “go away and do (their) homework”. So it’s hard to begrudge them their audible Schadenfreude now that the self-styled schoolmaster has been caught with a briefcase full of unmarked essays.

While the details of the current energy crisis into which Germany has manoeuvred itself are technically complex – turbines and export permits; prolonging the service life of nuclear reactors or even recommissioning them; adjusting the amount of gas-generated electricity in the grid to varying degrees between north and south – the overall picture is so simple that every schoolchild can understand it: we have been putting off our homework for too long. 

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

Years of inaction 

The assignment was set long ago. Back in the late 1990s, climate change first hit the political agenda and the Kyoto Protocol bound signatories to reduce greenhouse emissions. What’s more, Germany, as a country with few natural resources but a large industrial economy, has long been dependent on in importing astronomical amounts of oil and gas from foreign regimes – an approach whose weaknesses started to become apparent in the Oil Crises of the 1970s. As such, the task was clear – to radically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – and the student understood the learning objectives: contribute to saving the planet and gain a degree of strategic freedom.

We got off to a good start in 1998 by, for the first time ever, electing the Greens, who promptly proclaimed the Energiewende (green energy transition) and set about creating Europe’s leading solar and wind power industry. Unfortunately, however, the Chancellor they were under was SPD-man Gerhard “Greenhouse gasses? Russian gas!” Schröder and, in the background, industrials were assured that they wouldn’t have to take all the ecological stuff too seriously. 

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin

Gerhard Schröder hugs Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Alexei Druzhinin

Then, in 2005 we elected Chancellor Merkel – and re-elected her three times on a more or less explicit platform of Keeping Everything The Way It Is. This could only be achieved by continuing to import fossil fuels – an ever increasing proportion of which came, in spite of the many clear and pressing dangers, from Russia – and shrinking our renewables sector so that money could still be lavished on tax breaks for motorists and nobody’s view would be spoiled by wind farms.

Now, the due date for our homework has come around and we have a serious crisis. Things, for the first time ever, can no longer be Kept The Way They Are: public buildings are no longer being heated/cooled, swimming pools are being shut, and monuments are not being lit; those of us on gas heating (i.e. the majority of households in Germany) will soon be paying anything from double to quadruple our current bills.

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

Everywhere we look, there are shortages: not enough gas means, in anti-wind-power southern Germany, not enough electricity too. Yet sales figures from DIY chain stores show skyrocketing sales of electric heaters; shutting public buildings reduces consumption there, but increases it in people’s homes… Like a schoolboy on Sunday evening counting and re-counting the hours, whichever way we divide our time, there’s not enough of it.

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 a Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

What’s astonishing, by the way, is not actually how bad things have got – and how bad they’re looking this autumn and winter – but rather that they aren’t already far worse. This is primarily due to Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s decisive early action and brutally honest communication: as a result, we have been unexpectedly successful in reducing dependency on Russian gas from 55 percent to 35 percent within four months and have, due to various comparatively painless efficiency savings, managed to cut our gas consumption by 14 percent compared to last summer. As such, the Federal Network Agency is now cautiously optimistic that, if this winter is not a particularly cold one, we may just about make it through without having to shut off the gas supply to swathes of our industry or whole cities.

This may sound like a national success story – and if we are indeed successful in maintaining this thin, increasingly wobbly veneer of normality into 2023, there will be a strong temptation to sell it as such, patting ourselves on the back for having been far-sighted enough to switch off the hot water in town halls across the country before it was too late and then allowing ourselves to get distracted. Yet depriving civil servants of warm water to wash their hands during some of the hottest months on record while half of them are on holiday anyway (Why wasn’t this already standard practice?!) does not a green energy transition make. It is the equivalent of writing the last line on that essay just as the bus pulls into the stop opposite the school.

READ ALSO: Cold showers to turning off lights: How German cities are saving energy ahead of winter

Winter is first obstacle of many

Any short-term successes must be put in the context of a mountain of uncompleted tasks in the medium term. Firstly, getting through this winter by the skin of our teeth will mean that gas stocks are even lower next April than they were this year. So we’d better hope that those liquefied natural gas terminals being rush-built on the coast are operational by then, and that Qatar – that oh-so reliable regime thousands of miles away on the Persian Gulf that totally shares all of our values – honours the contracts Robert Habeck managed to grovel us into earlier this year.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany on Wednesday in Wilhelmshaven.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany earlier in 2022 in Wilhelmshaven. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

We’d also better hope that the Suez Canal, through which tankers filled with the much-needed LNG will need to pass, remains open the whole time and that Russian submarines sneaking their way through the Bosphorus don’t generate “incidents at sea”; then there’s Putin’s air units stationed in Syria… After that, in 2024, we’ll also need to keep a close eye on the US elections: another chunk of the LNG planned to replace Russian gas is from across the Atlantic, and a second Trump Administration would probably be only marginally more reliable a supplier than Putin’s regime.

So despite the flurry of activity this summer and the understandable angst ahead of autumn, it’s not really this winter that we should be worried about. There is, quite simply, a massive disconnect between the monumental scale of action which would be required to make Germany truly energy independent and the diminutive dimensions of what is currently happening.

Right now, we should be making it a legal requirement for landlords to switch heating systems from gas and legislating for state-funded factories to meet the demand this would generate; we should be immediately reactivating some of the thousands of kilometres of freight tracks Deutsche Bahn has dismantled in recent years – and drafting laws to make hauliers use these rail connections. Instead, we are jerry-rigging up LNG terminals and mucking about with flash-in-the-pan €9 tickets while we continue subsidising car-drivers enormous sums to burn petrol. 

Oh, and given that – who could have guessed? – Russia is barely respecting its supply commitments anyway, we should finally do the decent thing and stop importing Russian gas now. Would that add to our dire predicament? Yes. But perhaps, in order for us to start taking our homework seriously, we need to learn a few lessons first.

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

Member comments

  1. Ah the monday morning quarterback aren’t we Brian. Lets ‘reactivate’ tracks that have been dismantled, lets switch millions of home heating systems to non gas (what ever that means) in 4 months, and best of all lets build all the power plants we need to run all the new electric heating systems (which is what i think he meant by non gas) and yes, lets have those new power plants designed, approved and up and running by October right, or else. I find it very odd that a far left liberal doesnt even read what they send in as an article and realize how ridiculous he sounds.

  2. I see its time to cancel The Local subscription as any comments are removed if not supportive of the dribble so called writers submit.

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Reader question: How do I install a heat pump in my German property?

With gas prices higher than ever, many people in Germany are turning to heat pumps as a climate-friendly alternative for heating a home. If you're thinking of following suit, here's how to get started.

Reader question: How do I install a heat pump in my German property?

What are heat pumps – and why am I hearing so much about them?

Heat pumps are an electricity powered, energy-efficient way to produce warm water and heat inside the home. They work by transferring heat from the air, water or ground outside, compressing it to make it warmer and moving it around the building in a network of pipes. In summer, many heat pumps can also work in the opposite direction, extracting hot air from inside the building and circulating cool air from outside. 

Though the German government has been promoting this climate-friendly heating solution for a while, the demand for heat pumps has shot up in the wake of the current energy crisis. 

Last year, the number of heat pumps being installed in Germany increased by 28 percent to 154,000. The government hopes to be installing 500,000 of the devices per year by 2024.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has not only prompted a huge hike in gas prices, but also raised questions about the security of Europe’s energy supply. In this context, heat pumps have become attractive not just as an eco-friendly choice but also a potential money-saver that contributes to reducing Germany’s dependence on Russian gas.

What types of heat pump there?

There are three main options people should know about when deciding what type of heat pump to get. Though all of them function largely in the same way – by moving thermal energy around – they vary based on their sources of heat.

The first, and cheapest option, is a heat pump that extract heat from the air. The second, more efficient and slightly pricier option, is a pump that uses heat from below the ground. The third, most efficient and most expensive option, is a heat pump that gets its thermal energy from water – though these can be hard to get approval for.

Two heat pumps outside block of flats

Two heat pumps outside a block of flats. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/STIEBEL ELTRON | Marcus Pietrek

You can find out the efficiency of a heat pump through the Annual Work Figure (JAZ), which describes how many kilowatts of heat energy can be created from one kilowatt of electricity. According to experts, a JAZ of 3.3 or more – meaning just a third of the electricity goes into generating heat – would make a heat pump worthwhile. Most modern heat pumps tend achieve a rating of four at least. 

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

How much does it cost to install one?

That partly depends on what your existing heating system is like and whether wider renovation works need to be carried on your building to make the heat pump worthwhile. However, energy consultancy Renewa provide the following ballpark figures for the pump and installation:

  • Air heat pump: €15,000
  • Ground heat pump: €25,000
  • Water heat pump: €30,000 

The Verbraucherzentrale consumer advocacy group has slightly different estimates. They believe an air-source heat pump costs around €20,000-25,000, a ground-source heat pump costs €15,000-€20,000 for the device and around €50-100 per metre of drilling and a water-source heat pump costs anywhere between €25,000 and €40,000 for the device and installation. 

As a rule, installing a heat pump in a new-build property is likely to be a fair bit simpler than installing one in an older property. That’s because newer properties tend to have high energy efficiency standards, while older ones may require better insulation and other preparation work to make the heat pump worthwhile. 

Another factor that can impact costs are the ground conditions in your region. The difficulty of drilling through rocky soil in places like southern Germany can cause labour costs to spiral. 

READ ALSO: How much extra will German households pay under new gas surcharge?

Can I get any state subsidies?

The Economics Ministry has recently reduced the level of the subsidies for people installing new heat pumps, citing the debt break and limited resources. However, there’s still a fair amount of financial aid up for grabs.

While previously people could get up to 50 percent of their new heat pump system paid for by the state, this has now been reduced to 40 percent, up to a maximum of €24,000. This consists of the basic subsidy of 25 percent, plus an additional 10 percent if you replace an oil heating system or a gas heating system that is more than 20-years-old. 

There’s also another five percent bonus available for people who opt for a ground-source heat pump or a water-source heat pump.

In addition, you can get up to 80 percent of the costs of an energy consultant paid for by the government. This is capped at €1,300 for a detached or semi-detached house and at €1,700 for buildings with at least three apartments in them.

How do I get started?

One of the best ways to get started – and find out if a heat pump is right for you – is to book a consultation with an energy consultant. Though you don’t always have to have one, they can be invaluable in helping you navigate all the technical complexities of replacing your heating system and planning out the project. 

It’s also good to get a heads-up about whether there are more urgent energy efficiency measures you should be taking, like replacing drafty old windows. In some cases, these will need to be fixed before you can think about changing your heating system. 

As mentioned, the subsidies for energy consultants are still incredibly generous, so it’s usually worth getting the additional support.

An air-source heat pump outside a house in Germany.

An air-source heat pump outside a house in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Silas Stein

If you own a flat in a larger building, you’ll likely have to propose installing a heat pump at the next home owners’ meeting. The benefit of this is that, if other owners in the building agree, you can probably split the cost of the heat pump between you. The less good news is it will likely need to be put to a vote, and the “too many cooks” scenario could end up leading to a kind of stalemate in which nobody wants to take responsibility for anything.

In a single-occupancy house, things are much easier – though the downside is that you’ll have to bear the costs yourself.

READ ALSO: Should I install in an electric heater in Germany this winter?

How do I get hold of those subsidies?

State subsidies should be applied for online on the Federal Office of Economic Affairs (BAFA) website. You can do multiple applications at once, but it may work out best to do the consultant first because they can put together a document that could nab you a five percent ‘bonus’ subsidy for the work.

This is known as the individual renovation roadmap (iSFP) and sets out a number of energy saving proposals for your home. The expert should also confirm that these are being implemented in order for you to get the bonus.

In addition, you’ll need to attach a cost estimate for the work to the funding application. This should be a realistic estimate as it cannot be subsequently revised upwards if the work turns out to be more expensive.

Crucially, it’s best to hold off on starting the process – including signing any contracts – until your funding application is approved or at least submitted. That’s because BAFA doesn’t fund projects after construction has already started, which occurs the second you agree on a deal with a heat plump supplier or installation company.

Once you receive confirmation of the subsidies from BAFA, the work of installing your new heat pump can begin.