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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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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ENERGY

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

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