Summer nights in the wealthy Bavarian city of Augsburg this year are eerily dark and quiet: The facades of historic buildings are not illuminated, street lights are dimmed and most of the fountains are not operating.
Augsburg is among many cities around Germany to have rolled out a raft of energy savings measures since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent oil and gas prices soaring and sparked a cost of living crisis.
Around Europe, countries are looking for ways to cut energy consumption and fill up their gas stores in response to lower Russian gas deliveries and in preparation for a possible total cut-off.
Germany, as one of the countries most heavily dependent on Russian gas, is leading the charge with a nationwide campaign to save gas so that Europe’s largest economy has enough to get it through the winter, although energy experts say additional measures are needed to achieve energy security.
Augsburg mayor Eva Weber told Reuters that the city’s energy bills this year were expected to be almost double from last year’s costs of around 15.9 million euros.
“We want to show the Augsburg citizens that we could be facing really hard times…we all need to look to really save energy,” Weber said.
The city has also lowered the temperature in its public pools and is checking which traffic lights it can turn off. Like other cities, it wants to limit heating in public buildings.
Around half of German households rely on gas for their heating and some 13% of electricity is derived from the fossil fuel. Gas also accounts for a third of industry’s energy. In recent years, half of that gas has come from Russia.
Germany’s economy ministry is seeking to fill its gas caverns ahead of winter when demand typically surges so that it could get by with those as well as new alternative gas sources such as floating liquid natural gas terminals.
Any gas saved now can help it reach its goal, the government says, which is why it is re-activating coal-fired power plants and aims to launch a gas auction model to encourage industrial consumers to save gas.
The economy ministry also launched a campaign last month urging citizens to take shorter showers, increase their fridge’s temperature by 1 degree and better insulate their home.
“I have further significantly reduced my own showering time,” said Economy Minister Robert Habeck, a Green, who announced more binding measures on Thursday, including a ban on heating swimming pools in private homes.
Up to tenfold price rises
Price rises of up to tenfold for new end consumers have already incentivised energy savings, said Thorsten Lenck at think tank Agora Energiewende. Those still on old one- or two-year contracts though have yet to feel the pain.
Private landlords worry about the exorbitant year-end bills for extra energy costs facing tenants that they might not be able to afford to pay. As such, Germany’s largest residential landlord Vonovia has said it will reduce heating for tenants in many of its apartments at night.
“We are some way on the path to saving enough energy, but we’re still not there yet,” said Lenck.
Adjusted for temperature differences, gas consumption was 6.4 % lower in the first five months of the year, and 10.8 % less in May, according to Germany’s power industry association BDEW.
The European Union told member states on Wednesday they needed to cut gas usage by 15% until March.
But that’s an average – Germany needs to cut its usage by 30% given its gas reliance, said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at think-tank Bruegel.
“Politicians don’t like to ask people to sacrifice and they postponed this because they still wanted to believe Russia might not play too much with gas,” he said. “But they will now have to … otherwise Europe simply will have to close down factories because they cannot curtail gas to families.”
Preparing for worst-case scenario
Germany’s emergency plan prioritizes gas for households and critical institutions like hospitals, whereas industry would be the first to face rationing.
Nonetheless, across Germany, nervous citizens are stocking up on wood for fireplaces or electric heaters in reaction to rising prices and to brace for a worst-case scenario in the winter when temperatures can drop as low as -20 degrees.
“Demand for wood has gone up 100%,” said Olesja Breuer. “Our delivery times have gone from two weeks to two months”.
DIY-store chain Hornbach, which has 98 stores in Germany, said sales of different types of fuels and heaters as well as isolation materials and solar modules started shooting up last November, and again after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It was driven firstly by the rising energy prices … and also clients’ desire to be autonomous and prepared for emergencies,” said spokesperson Florian Preuss, noting that consumers in other European markets were not behaving in the same way.
Some cities are planning on opening warm spaces where either the homeless or those who cannot afford heating can escape the winter cold.
“We have an energy crisis that needs to be solved as a society,” said Augsburg resident Christoph Kleine-Vennekate. “And if (tackling that) is about such irrelevant things as lighting up buildings, we can manage it easily.”
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