Europe’s summer heat wave has just ended, but fears are already growing in Germany about what horrors may be in store for its citizens this winter.
Vladimir Putin is choking off the country’s gas supplies – officially due to ‘necessary maintenance work’ on pipelines, although some suspect he is retaliating for Berlin’s defiance in Ukraine. Flows from Germany’s main gas pipe, Nord Stream 1, are now at 20 percent of normal levels. It is feared that it will soon be closed for good.
It warned of energy rationing For both households and businesses that, in worst cases, could force entire industries to shut down. Household energy bills could triple, pushing already high inflation up another 2 percent. £240 billion could wipe out the economy, with aftershocks felt in 2024.
‘Germany is in the grip of recession,’ as top economist Clemens Feust put it yesterday. Others worry that the entire eurozone could soon turn upside down.
To stem the outbreak, EU leaders today agreed to cut gas use by 15 percent but Germany – which imports the most Russian gas of any member state – faces double that. Finance Minister Robert Habeck says he is short of rain, while regional leaders are dimming street lights and closing swimming pools.
The failure is the legacy of Angela Merkel, who ignored 15 years of warnings from her top energy expert, Claudia Kaempfert, that overdependence on Russian energy would weaken the country.
Viktorija Starich-Samuoline, co-founder of the Council on Geostrategy, a think-tank, told MailOnline: ‘Germany is in for a tough winter due to its over-reliance on Russian gas.
‘Despite repeated warnings about the risks of this dependence, German governments have deepened it, leaving the country open to the risk of Russia using gas as a weapon – as Russia appears to have done.’
Germany is, by a long way, the biggest importer of Russian gas in the EU – buying around 52 billion cubic meters of gas in 2020, according to the bloc’s figures. The next largest is Italy, at 28 billion
Even with so much gas imported, it makes up a small fraction of the energy used in Germany compared to other European countries (pictured) – but drives important manufacturing industries, and is also used to heat care homes and hospitals.
Germany is not alone in relying on Russian natural gas to power its economy, with around 40 percent of the EU member state’s total gas consumption coming from its eastern neighbor.
But years of deliberate policy-making have left Germany uniquely vulnerable to Russian threats to cut gas flows.
First, there is the sheer volume of gas that Berlin imports – about 52.5 billion cubic meters in 2020, according to EU figures, which is almost double that of the next closest nation, Italy, at 28 billion.
Second, Germany does not produce its own gas: 95 percent of annual use is imported to power key manufacturing industries as well as heating hospitals, care homes and homes.
Third, the delivery method is: The gas comes via pipeline exclusively to Germany, which unlike other European nations has no ports capable of receiving liquefied natural gas.
Among gas suppliers to Germany, Russia is the largest – accounting for 55 percent of pre-war imports – followed by Norway, Algeria and Qatar.
Last: Nord Stream 1 is the most important route for bringing Russian gas to Germany, capable of transporting almost all of its daily needs – although smaller quantities also arrive from Belarus and Poland via the Yamal Pipe and the Soyuz Pipe. Ukraine.
This means that, by shutting down a single pipeline, Russia could cut Germany’s gas imports by more than half and leave Berlin with very few ways to switch supplies at short notice.
The situation has improved somewhat since the start of the war. Berlin has managed to cut Russian imports to about a third of its foreign supply, and two liquefied gas ports facing the North Sea are under construction at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel.
The first should come online later this year, and the second early next – allowing the country to reduce its dependence on Russian imports by 2023. But it doesn’t come fast enough to help in the winter.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, completely caught off guard by the war in Ukraine, has set a target for German energy companies to fill gas tanks to 90 percent – a task made difficult by the fact that the storage facilities, many of which are owned by Russian companies. Critically running down as Putin ordered his attack.
Firms are on track to miss that target, the country’s regulator said on Monday, as IMF modeling suggests the country could be running seriously short on supplies by the winter of 2026/27.
Nord Stream 1 is the main pipeline carrying gas to Germany, and Russia is slowly throttling it – ostensibly for maintenance work, though it is suspected that it is actually designed to punish Berlin for opposing the war in Ukraine.
Germany imports 95 percent of the gas it uses, more than half of which comes from Russia in a typical year. The bulk of that gas arrived via Nord Stream 1, the pipeline that Moscow is now throttling.
If temperatures drop well below average during that time, the shortage will be more acute.
It could force entire industries to shut down, Economy Minister Robert Habeck recently warned, with unions warning that many companies would not survive the upheaval.
Germany has offered bailouts to any company struggling due to the energy crisis, and last week handed over £15bn to its biggest energy firm – Uniper – which was at risk of collapse.
Under federal law, German households are currently protected from rationing but ministers and executives have begun to warn that changes may have to be made.
The country lacks the infrastructure to physically throttle supplies to households, so the most likely way to ration gas is to sharply raise prices.
Klaus Müller, the head of the Federal Energy Network, has said that household bills will ‘at least triple’ from next year – urging people to save now to make up for it.
Despite the growing crisis, Scholz has ruled out the possibility of keeping Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants – mothballed by Merkel – in service. Final three will be taken offline at the end of the year.
Politicians say the costs of extending their lives are far greater than the benefits they provide, although critics point out that the ruling Green Party has long been ideologically opposed to nuclear power.
Instead, the country is being forced to restart old coal-fired power stations despite long-term commitments to cut emissions to meet environmental targets. Coal is widely regarded as the most polluting fuel source.
Mr Habeck has talked about reducing the time he spends in the shower and urged other Germans to do the same. Industries are also encouraged to cut back on natural gas usage.
Already, regional leaders and big firms have talked about lowering central heating temperatures in homes, dimming lights, closing swimming pools, and rationing hot water.
The crisis is likely to be so acute that Deutsche Bank predicts that large numbers of Germans will use wood burners instead of boilers to heat their homes this winter.
Angela Merkel ignores Germany’s top energy expert’s 15-year warning that overdependence on Russian gas is weakening the country (pictured with Putin in 2021)
All of that plays directly into the hands of Vladimir Putin, who is hoping the crisis will strengthen European resolve to oppose his war in Ukraine and lead to some sort of peace deal on Russia’s side.
Moscow has denied that dwindling gas supplies have anything to do with the war, saying instead that the turbines that pump the gas need repairs and are to blame.
But experts say that while the turbines have needed regular maintenance in the past, Russia has stepped up supply through other lines to cope. It didn’t happen this time.
Instead, the flow of gas is gradually choked. Russia cut flows to 40 percent of their normal levels in mid-June, shortly before Nord Stream 1 was shut down for routine maintenance.
Many in Germany feared it would not reopen later, and while that nightmare scenario has not passed, the flow has been cut again and now stands at 20 percent of regular levels.
At the same time, Russia has completely cut off supplies to countries such as Poland and Finland that have taken a hard line on Ukraine – apparently for refusing to pay in rubles – further exacerbating the crisis.
This has led Berlin to lobby for a voluntary 15 percent cut in gas use on the continent that was agreed today, although there were misleading signs of unity.
Spain and Greece – whose economies were strangled after Germany bailed them out following the 2008 financial crash – are strongly opposed, sarcastically telling Berlin to ‘live within its means’.
Poland, which has led Europe to stand with Russia, also argued that no country should curb its industrial gas use to help other states facing shortages.
As the days grow darker and the weather grows colder, tensions are likely to rise — to Moscow’s delight and Kiev’s dismay.