Germans could have to give up 'comfort' under emergency energy plans

Ministers are also refusing to exempt entire sectors such as health or education from possible power cuts

Apartment buildings are lit at twilight in Berlin, where ministers are making plans to ration energy. Getty
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German households will not be guaranteed gas this winter beyond what is deemed “vital for life”, under emergency plans handed to MPs.

People could be asked to stick to the bare essentials and give up the gas they would normally use for “comfort”.

Ministers are also refusing to exempt entire sectors such as health or education from possible power cuts, because some of their gas use is not critical.

The emergency plans would kick in if Germany invokes its highest alert level during a winter overshadowed by Russian gas cuts. It moved to the second-highest level in June.

Although gas tanks have been filled up ahead of schedule to more than 90 per cent of capacity, the Russian-owned Nord Stream 1 pipeline has been out of action for weeks. It also suffered unexplained leaks late on Monday.

Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany's power grid regulator, said on Tuesday he saw optimistic signs that households, as well as industry, were starting to use less energy.

However, factors beyond Germany's control, including the winter weather and the electricity supply from other countries such as France, will help to dictate whether supplies run low.

In a worst-case scenario where gas is short, the German government would step in and ration supplies ― with a special task force deciding who is most in need.

Households, and vital infrastructure such as hospitals, are regarded as “protected consumers” and partially shielded from power cuts under German and European law.

However, protected consumers “do not enjoy absolute protection”, the German Economy Ministry wrote in a document sent to three left-wing MPs who queried the emergency plans.

“Both protected and unprotected consumers can have a need for gas that is vital for life,” the government said. “In the event of a gas shortage, protected consumers too should give up the ‘comfort’ part of their gas consumption.”

The document rejected the idea that some critical sectors such as education should be shielded from power cuts altogether, on the grounds that some of their gas could be saved or better used elsewhere.

It gave the example of a pharmaceuticals company that might urgently need gas to produce its medication, but uses some of its energy for less critical matters.

“Completely exempting this manufacturer from reductions in gas consumption would be to overlook the potential for gas savings,” the ministry said.

EU countries including Germany set a target in July of reducing gas consumption by 15 per cent this winter. This was to make supplies go further after Russia drastically reduced exports in the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

An array of energy-saving measures in Germany includes colder water in swimming pools, maximum temperature settings in flats and the dimming of lights on monuments such as Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

Decisions on whether a particular organisation’s gas supply is critical will be made on the basis of its social importance, its ability to find alternative energy supplies, and what the effects of reducing its gas consumption would be.

Government ministers blame their predecessors for making Germany reliant on Russian gas. No imports through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia have arrived since September.

There is little optimism that Russian gas exports will ever resume, not least after the riddle of the pipeline leaks that occurred on Tuesday after Germany, Denmark and Sweden all reported a loss of pressure in their waters.

However, the first shipment of liquefied natural gas is expected to arrive from the UAE before the end of 2022, under an agreement made at the weekend. LNG terminals are hurriedly being built on Germany’s northern coast.

Ministers are meanwhile planning a huge expansion of renewable energy generation to end Germany’s reliance on Russian gas once and for all.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who was opening a trade fair for the wind power sector in Hamburg on Tuesday, said a faster green transition was essential to ensuring Germany’s energy security.

Mr Habeck reluctantly announced this month that two nuclear power plants due to be switched off for good in December would be kept in reserve into next year. This would delay the long-planned end of atomic energy in Germany.

Updated: September 27, 2022, 11:03 AM