Swimming pools, showers and shops: Europe's new energy saving rules

German government tells landlords to turn down thermostats and orders colder swimming pools

Brandenburg Gate, Germany's most recognisable landmark, is lit up at night ... but not for much longer, as its lights are set to go out each night. EPA
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Germany is in such a state of alarm about potential gas shortages this winter that the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most recognisable landmark and a symbol of the country’s hard-won unity, is set to go dark.

From September 1 public buildings — with the exception of social institutions like hospitals — are to be heated to a maximum of 19°C, and the heating could be turned off entirely in corridors and foyers.

Buildings and monuments will no longer be illuminated for purely presentational purposes and businesses could be banned from keeping their shopfronts illuminated at night. A ban is also planned on the heating of private swimming pools.

“Overall the measures save energy. However, not to the extent that we can sit back and say, 'That'll do now,'” Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Berlin.

The measures could save private households, companies and the public sector about 10.8 billion euros ($10.7 billion) in total over the next two years, Mr Habeck's ministry said.

The limits on energy use and dimming of national monuments is not confined to Germany but is part of an energy-related panic that has convulsed Europe in recent weeks, forcing the region's powers to take action.

The European Union has reached a voluntary accord with its member states to reduce gas use in their respective countries by 15 per cent to ensure the bloc can withstand Moscow's threats to cut off its westward gas flows.

The 15 per cent figure was reached because the EU would be short by roughly that much if Russia switched off supplies from now until winter, according to modelling by officials.

In Spain, air conditioning is capped at 27°C in public buildings despite a summer heatwave, with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez suggesting people could take their ties off to keep cool.

The French government announced decrees that would force air-conditioned shops to keep their doors closed and introduce a curfew for brightly lit advertising billboards overnight.

Welcoming the European accord, French minister of ecological transition Agnes Pannier-Runacher said the country's gas storage was at 75 per cent but that by diminishing consumption the figure could rise to 100 per cent by November.

The German public has been asked to show broad restraint because gas imports from Russia have slowed dramatically in the fallout from the war in Ukraine, and there are doubts about how long the main pipeline will continue in service.

Announcing government proposals to meet an EU call for 15 per cent savings in energy consumption, Mr Habeck warned this month the country could not trust that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not turn off the tap completely.

Mr Habeck, also Vice Chancellor in the coalition, wants to ensure that companies and citizens reduce their gas consumption and maintain that lower usage. “We need staying power,” he said, as he set out emergency regulations. Buildings would not longer have to maintain a certain minimum temperature — allowing tenants in rented apartments to shut the system down if they are away and lifting an obligation to keep corridors warm. Homes with swimming pools can no longer use gas heating systems.

Tenants revolt

One of Germany’s most biggest landlords, property manager Vonovia, recently announced that the temperature in its 500,000 apartments would be reduced to 17°C at night, infuriating some of its tenants.

“People have different sensitivities to temperature — older people and babies need to be warmer, others work shifts or are active at night,” Jasmin Menrad, a spokeswoman for a tenants’ association in Munich, told The National.

Rolf Bosse, who represents a similar organisation in Hamburg, said Vonovia was making tenants pay for its own creaking radiators in apartment blocks from the 1950s and 1960s that were bound to attract mould.

“This is not a sensible measure,” he said. “Debating consumer behaviour and bossing tenants around distracts from the actually important decisions, which are in the hands of the landlords.”

While residents study their contracts, another landlord in Saxony went further still by saying water tanks in some of its flats would be heated only at certain times of the day until September.

That went too far for the government, which said withholding hot water was illegal, but ministers declared a gas crisis last month and are only one step away from the highest alert level at which they might have to ration power.

Unwashed ministers

Acknowledging probably public frustration at having to make yet more sacrifices for the greater good after the long months of coronavirus lockdowns, Mr Habeck said he too was doing his bit to save energy, cutting down his daily washing routines.

“I’ve distinctly reduced my showering time,” he told an interviewer last month, before explaining that it was not too much of a hardship: “I’ve never showered for as long as five minutes in my life.”

Another politician from Mr Habeck’s Green party, Brandenburg’s state health minister Ursula Nonnemacher, said running a bath had “gone completely out of fashion” in her household.

But Chancellor Olaf Scholz, known for being a man of few words, declined to weigh in with his recommendations. Any handy tips, Mr Scholz? “Nah,” he casually replied.

Swimming in the cold

As early as spring, Germany’s swimming pool managers were turning the temperature down to do their bit to foil Mr Putin’s energy war.

Leisure centres in Berlin turned the heating down by 2°C to save gas, leaving them in the chilly range of 22ºC-24ºC, although two open-air pools that run on solar power were given an exemption.

Even in Britain, which is less reliant on Russian energy, rising fuel costs have left swimming pools under threat of closure.

Chris Hayes, managing director of the Swimming Pool and Allied Trades Association, said the operating costs of a typical indoor pool had gone up by an estimated 150 per cent since last year.

“The country is already feeling some negative impacts, which are predicted to continue increasing before getting better,” he said.

… but don’t get too cold

If Europeans cannot keep warm, can they at least keep cool? Not necessarily, since air conditioners and electric fans account for another big proportion of energy use in buildings.

The government in Spain decided that office air con could not be set below 27ºC during the hottest months of the year, in a country where temperatures outside can often rise above 40ºC.

And there may be no respite outside because workers are being encouraged to cycle to work to save using fuel in their cars.

Civil servants in Italy are also facing a long, hot summer, with plans announced in April to keep air conditioning in public buildings at 25ºC-27ºC.

Creased shirts, slow cars

“Creases help to save electricity,” suggested Austria’s biggest electricity provider, telling customers that the energy costs involved in ironing should not be underestimated.

There was a similar recommendation from a utility company in Munich, which said ironing 15 shirts used up the same amount of energy as using a hairdryer for 45 minutes and that people should merely hang up their dried laundry.

The European Union has spoken of energy saving as part of a four-pronged strategy to free its power grids from Russia’s grip, along with finding alternative gas suppliers, expanding renewables and linking up its networks.

Enough oil could be saved to fill 120 tankers if people drove more slowly on motorways, left their cars at home on Sundays and worked from home more often, among other recommendations, the European Commission said.

The question of slower driving has revived a long-standing debate in Germany over whether to bring in a blanket speed limit on its autobahns, which are known for having no national restrictions, but this has been opposed by liberal MPs.

Updated: August 31, 2022, 10:10 PM