German officials issued a tentative sigh of relief last week, when Russian gas began flowing again through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to the European Union after its annual 10-day maintenance—only to have that relief turn to frustration a few days later, when the Russian company Gazprom announced it would further reduce the gas deliveries to just 20% of the pipeline’s capacity.
The reduced gas deliveries seemed to confirm many European leaders’ fears that Russia would use its energy supplies as leverage against its E.U. neighbors’ stance against the war in Ukraine. It also highlighted the bigger problem on the horizon: Germany, a country of 83 million and Europe’s biggest economy, is deeply dependent on Russian energy imports—essential for heating homes and powering German factories, among other things. What happens if, heading into this winter, Russia just cuts off the gas entirely?
German leaders are scrambling to prepare for that possibility and the larger energy crisis it could trigger, announcing a slate of new measures aimed at cutting gas consumption and readying other sources of energy to offset shortages. “Russia is using the great power it has… to blackmail Europe,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor and economy minister, said last week. “We have to prepare ourselves for winter.”
As of the end of June, Germany had nearly cut the proportion of its gas supply coming from Russia in half, from 55% in February before the Ukraine invasion, to 26%. Still, experts say it’s not enough to ensure a shortage-free winter.
In the meantime, soaring energy prices and high inflation mean Germany has already been feeling the effects of the energy crisis. On Friday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the bailout of energy supplier Uniper, the country’s largest Russian gas importer which had been financially struggling ever since gas flows slowed. Meanwhile, some Berlin residents have received notice that their heating costs could double this winter.
While Germany is far from the only European country currently impacted thanks to its historic reliance on Russian gas, part of its increased vulnerability is due to its lack of alternatives or any significant domestic gas resources. As part of its long-term transition to clean energy, or Energiewende, the country had already begun moving away from energy sources they otherwise could have used to offset gas shortages; the country plans to phase out coal by 2030 and shutter its remaining nuclear power plants by the end of this year.
But preparing for a possible worst-case energy crunch has led Germany to now temporarily authorize the reopening of several previously closed coal-fired power plants starting in October—and some officials have even suggested the possibility of keeping nuclear plants open beyond the end of the year.
In addition to this, officials’ latest plan, announced on July 21, requires Germany’s strategic gas storage reserves—established earlier this year in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—to be filled to 75% capacity by Sept. 1, 85% by Oct. 1 and 95% by Nov. 1, faster than previously planned. These reserves are currently at around 67%.
Still, even if filled to 100%, they would hardly last through the winter. At current consumption rates, Germany’s government has estimated the stored gas could fully cover Germany’s energy needs for two to three months. As a result, experts warn that action is needed now to prevent painful shortages.
“It’s a serious situation, but it’s not unmanageable,” says Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research. “It’s in our hands how good or bad this will be… we can avoid [a worst-case scenario] if we do a lot of things now.”
On top of ramping up and diversifying its energy supply for later, on July 21, the government announced plans to immediately curb overall gas consumption, calling on individuals to cut back by doing everything from taking shorter showers and washing laundry at lower temperatures to prohibiting gas for heating private swimming pools. The government also imposed new energy-use guidelines for larger buildings: Unused common spaces like offices and hallways, for example, should be unheated.
The government has promised to mitigate the impact on households by providing additional funds to offset household energy bills this winter, but warns that consumers will see prices continue to rise. “One doesn’t know exactly how much [gas] will cost in November, but the bitter news is that it’s definitely a few hundred euros per household,” Habeck said Thursday.
If real shortages hit this winter, there could be wide-ranging impacts. Some apartment and office buildings have said they may place caps on temperatures and hot water during certain hours, and one German state leader suggested sending university students home for a longer winter break to conserve energy on campuses.
And while the public continues to back Germany’s military support for Ukraine, which came after domestic and international pressure, a true energy crisis this winter could shift public opinion. Marcel Dirsus, a nonresident fellow and expert in German politics and foreign policy at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy, says Germans quickly rallied behind support for Ukraine when the war broke out, but that the support isn’t uniform and can’t necessarily be taken for granted. “As the costs … to ordinary voters have become more apparent, there have been more and more concerns that this public support may not be sustainable over the long run,” he says.
A mid-July poll from the broadcaster ZDF found that 70% of Germans agree support should continue for Ukraine despite higher energy prices. But when asked specifically about military support, just 35% said Germany should be doing more, a figure that has dropped 9 percentage points since the beginning of the month.
The situation will affect more than Germans’ thermostats and pocketbooks: It also has implications for the country’s ambitious energy transition plans. Increasing coal production again means the country, already struggling to meet its targets for 2030 and beyond, may have to more rapidly cut back on fossil fuels in the future to stay on track with its goals.
Kemfert said the looming crisis should be an opportunity for German leaders to make the difficult but long-needed changes to the country’s energy landscape, focusing on developing its renewable energy sources rather than restarting coal plants and remaining dependent on fossil fuels.
“That would be my hope: That this is really a wake-up call, the last one, for a real transition toward renewable energy,” she says. “And that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past which brought us to this situation.”
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