Germans Tip-Toe Up the Path to Energy Savings

AUGSBURG, Germany – Wolfgang Hübschle joined the city government with the desire for a simple life, planning things like traditional festivals fully equipped with lederhosen.

Instead, these days, he has the uncommon task of figuring out which traffic lights should be turned off, how to reduce the temperature in offices and swimming pools – and perhaps, if necessary, towing the lights. Bavarians’ favorite but energy-hungry brewery.

City officials like Mr. Hübschle, economic adviser to the Bavarian city of Augsburg, have been on the front lines of the geopolitical struggle with Russia ever since. European Union leaders agreed this week tried to reduce natural gas consumption by 15% over concerns that President Vladimir V. Putin might cut exports in retaliation for Europe’s support of Ukraine.

Nowhere is that fear deeper than in Germany, Europe’s largest consumer of Russian gas. With more than half of its gas supplies coming from Moscow prior to the invasion of Ukraine, cheap Russian gas is the basis of powerful German industry. Officials even planned to double with a second pipeline from Russiauntil the war forced the project to be suspended.

Augsburg is now one of the leaders in a growing conservation effort state by state, as some German cities offer financial incentives to cut gas use, while others Others dim the street lights. But such efforts have also extended beyond Germany.

Across Europe, towns and cities are finding different ways to help people reduce their energy use. Barcelona is providing home efficiency assessments, while Warsaw is subsidizing homes to replace fossil-fired stoves with heat pumps. In the Meurthe-et-Moselle region of eastern France, dozens of villages turned off their street lights at midnight.

It was all in an attempt to get past Mr. Putin, whom Hübschle, oddly for a local official, found himself trying to read their minds.

Mr. Hübschle believes that could deter Russia from trying to cut supply this winter.

“If Putin gets the impression that he can really hurt the economies of Europe’s biggest countries, he will not hesitate to cut off gas supplies,” he said. “If it didn’t hurt too much, he would choose to take the money instead of causing the pain.”

Although non-binding, the EU’s consumption targets for now send a clear signal not only of Europe’s resolve to Mr. Putin, but also genuine concern that economies are Europe is at risk, especially if Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, hits.

Gazprom is controlled by the Kremlin highlight this week’s threat when it reduced flow through Nord Stream 1 into Germany to just 20%, citing, unconvincing to many, problems with German-made turbines.

About half of homes in Germany are heated by gas, while a third of the country’s gas is used for industry. If the upcoming winter is particularly cold, the cuts will be brutal.

But future weather is difficult to predict – as are Moscow’s ultimate intentions. Economists are also struggling to gauge whether the shutdown could leave Germany facing a 3% or 20 percent recession.

“If our smartest economists don’t have the idea and admit it, how can I?” Mr. Hübschle said.

What he does know is that, with energy prices skyrocketing, Augsburg has faced an 80% increase in spending – around 11 million euros. Officials are scrambling to avoid passing those costs on to the people.

The mayor of Augsburg, Eva Weber, even ordered the closure of many of the city’s fountains and limited operating hours for three fountains connected to the city’s 800-year-old water management system, a World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO.

The city’s initiatives came after months of push by Germany’s Economy Minister, Robert Habeck, who took painful steps for a Green politician, like reopening coal-fired power plants to replace those that burn gas and expand rapidly infrastructure for liquefied natural gasalong with securing delivery contracts from Qatar and the United States.

In a recent social media post, Mr Habeck encouraged people to change their daily habits as part of efforts to reach the country’s 20% savings target.

“If you think, OK, change the shower, defrost the freezer or turn down the heater, none of that makes a difference – you’re fooling yourself,” said Mr Habeck. “It’s an excuse to do nothing.”

Some officials have expressed concern that the government is causing panic. And some are hoping the incentives will encourage careful energy use.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pledged to increase housing subsidies and protect tenants from eviction for unpaid heating bills. This week, Munich announced an “energy bonus” of 100 euros for households to cut their annual consumption by 20%, and its utility company launched an energy-saving contest for its customers this week. this fall.

The Germans seem to be responding. The Federal Water and Energy Association says the nation is using nearly 15 percent less gas than it did in the same period last year, a trend it attributes in part to record energy prices. Costs will rise further in early October, when the government introduces a gas surcharge.

In response, space heaters and wood-fired ovens are selling out in many cities, and there is a long wait for mini solar units to power some home appliances.

Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist with the German Institute for Economic Research, said such savings were important but was concerned that the country had wasted several months with appeals to citizens instead of action. more strongly with the business.

Companies have proven that they can reduce their gas consumption when they have no choice. On Wednesday, carmaker Mercedes-Benz said it had cut gasoline use by 10% and could cut it by up to 50% while maintaining full operations.

“There is so much we can achieve through market-based approaches that we should use all the options available on that front to avoid the emergency,” Ms. Kemfert said. .

City officials say they will have no way of understanding how much their efforts can help until they have more data.

In Munich, the capital of the southern state of Bavaria and the center of German industry, Deputy Mayor Katrin Habenschaden is skeptical.

“I honestly don’t believe this can be compensated for, nor do I appreciate it through our current efforts to save energy.” she speaks. “Rather, I believe we just need other options or solutions.”

As deputy in charge of economic affairs, she helped the city with one type of economy – assessing what kinds of allocations different companies might face. Businesses, big and small, are courting the city, to make their case for why they should be forgiven.

Bavaria is of particular interest because it is home to companies that are at the forefront of German industry, such as BMW and Siemens. Ms. Habenschaden, Green, argues that the region’s reluctance by conservative governments to challenge its heavy reliance on gas and promote renewables has also made the country particularly vulnerable, Ms. Habenschaden, Green, arguments.

In Augsburg and Munich, local officials asked every city employee to submit their proposals. An Augsburg official points to the city’s two data centers as a major energy drain. Now they are considering whether they can rely on just one.

More quietly, many local leaders are pondering which energy-hungry German traditions could be outlawed, should the country be forced into energy rationing: Brewing? Christmas Market?

Mr. Hübschle said he believes Bavaria should close its famous breweries before letting their chemical industry face a gas shortage.

Meanwhile, Rosi Steinberger, a member of the Bavarian parliament, now works in a dark office to cut her intake, and is debating whether to incite the inevitable fury of Munich by asking them to cancel the world famous Oktoberfest or not. It is scheduled to return this fall after a two-year pause in the pandemic.

“I haven’t asked yet,” she said, with a nervous smile. “But I also think when people say there shouldn’t be anything taboo in what we look at – well, that’s what you have to think about.”

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