AUGSBURG, Germany — Wolfgang Hübschle entered the city government expecting a simple life, planning things like traditional festivals teeming with lederhosen.
Instead, he now has the unpopular task of figuring out which traffic lights to turn off, how to lower the temperature in offices and swimming pools—and perhaps, if it comes to that, turn off Bavarians’ favorite but energy-hungry breweries.
Municipal officials such as Mr.
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Hübschle, an economic adviser to the provincial Bavarian city of Augsburg, are at the forefront of the geopolitical struggle with Russia as European Union leaders agreed this week to try to cut natural gas consumption by 15 percent, fearing President Vladimir Putin might reduce exports in response to European support for Ukraine.
Nowhere is this fear more profound than in Germany, Europe’s largest consumer of Russian gas. Since more than half of the gas came from Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine, cheap Russian gas was the backbone of a powerful German industry. Officials even planned to double spending with a second pipeline from Russia until the war forced the project to be put on hold.
Augsburg is now among the cities where conservation efforts are growing state by state, as some German cities are offering financial incentives to reduce gas use while others are dimming street lights. But such efforts are already spreading far beyond Germany.
Across Europe, cities and towns are finding different ways to help citizens reduce their energy consumption. Barcelona offers home efficiency assessments, and Warsaw subsidizes homes that replace fossil fuel stoves with heat pumps. In the Meurthe-et-Moselle region of eastern France, street lights were switched off at midnight in a dozen villages.
All of this is done to outsmart Mr. Putin, whose mind Mr. Huebschle, oddly enough for a local official, is trying to read.
Mr. Huebschle believes that even if Europe simply “gets along” with the current cuts in gas supplies, it could deter Russia from trying to cut off supplies this winter.
“If Putin gets the impression that he can really harm the economies of the largest European countries, he will not hesitate to cut off the gas supply,” he said. “If it doesn’t hurt too much, he’d rather get paid than hurt.”
As yet non-binding, the EU’s consumption targets have sent a clear signal not only of Europe’s determination to stand up to Mr Putin, but also of real concern that European economies are at risk, especially if Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, takes over hit.
Kremlin-controlled Gazprom this week highlighted the threat by cutting Nord Stream 1 gas flows to Germany to just 20 percent, citing, unconvincingly to many, problems with German-made turbines.
Europe’s move away from fossil fuels
The European Union has begun the transition to more environmentally friendly forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations can complicate the effort.
Approximately half of all houses in Germany are heated by gas, and a third of the country’s gas is used by industry. If the upcoming winter is particularly cold, the shutdown will be brutal.
But future weather is difficult to predict, as are Moscow’s ultimate intentions. Economists are also trying to assess whether the economic shutdown could see Germany face a 3 or 20 percent recession.
“If our smartest economists have no idea and admit it, how could I?” said Mr. Huebschle.
What he does know is that due to skyrocketing energy prices, Augsburg is already facing an 80 percent increase in costs – about 11 million euros. Officials are trying their best not to pass these costs on to residents.
Augsburg Mayor Eva Weber even ordered the closure of many of the city’s fountains and limited the opening hours of three fountains connected to the city’s 800-year-old water management system, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city’s initiatives come after months of urging German Economics Minister Robert Habeck, who has taken steps that are painful for green politicians, such as reopening coal-fired power plants instead of gas-fired ones, and rapidly expanding LNG infrastructure. gas, as well as the conclusion of contracts for supplies from Qatar and the United States.
In a recent social media post, Mr Habek called on people to change their daily habits as part of efforts to meet the country’s 20 percent savings goal.
“If you think it’s okay, change the shower head, defrost the freezer or turn off the heater, none of it matters — you’re kidding yourself,” Mr. Habek said. “That’s an excuse to do nothing.”
Some officials have expressed concern that the government is fueling panic. And some hope that the incentives will encourage sustainable use of energy.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised to increase housing subsidies and protect tenants from eviction due to unpaid heating bills. This week, Munich announced a €100 “energy bonus” for households that cut their annual consumption by 20 percent, and the utility launched an energy saving contest for customers this fall.
The Germans seem to be reacting. The Federal Energy and Water Resources Association said the country is using nearly 15 percent less gas compared to the same period last year, a trend they attribute in part to record energy prices. Costs will increase even further by early October, when the government introduces a gas surcharge.
In response, heaters and wood-burning stoves are being sold out in many cities, and mini-solar panels to power some home devices are long overdue.
Claudia Kaemfert, an energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research, said such savings are critical but worries that the country has spent months reaching out to citizens instead of taking more drastic action with businesses.
Companies have shown that they can cut their gas consumption when they have no choice. Automaker Mercedes-Benz said on Wednesday it has cut gas consumption by 10 percent and could cut up to 50 percent while maintaining full performance.
“We can achieve a lot with market-based approaches, we must exhaust all the possibilities we have on this front so that we can avoid an emergency,” Ms Kemfert said.
Municipal officials say they won’t have a chance to see how much their efforts can help until they get more data.
In Munich, the capital of the southern state of Bavaria and the epicenter of German industry, deputy mayor Katrin Habenshaden is skeptical.
“Honestly, I don’t believe this can be compensated, although I do appreciate it thanks to our energy saving efforts.” she said. “Rather, I think we just need other options or other solutions.”
As deputy in charge of managing economic affairs, she assisted the city in a sort of economic sorting—an assessment of what kind of rationing different companies might face. Businesses, large and small, are circling the city to prove why they should be spared.
Bavaria is of particular concern because German industrial powerhouses such as BMW and Siemens are based here. The conservative regional government’s reluctance to challenge its heavy reliance on gas and push renewable energy forward has also made it especially vulnerable, says Ms Habenshaden, a spokeswoman for the Greens.
In Augsburg and Munich, local authorities asked all city employees to send their proposals. One Augsburg civil servant pointed out that the city’s two data centers were the main source of energy leakage. Now they are considering whether they can rely on just one.
In a calmer environment, many local leaders are speculating about what energy-hungry German traditions might have to be crushed if the country is forced into energy rationing: beer production? Christmas markets?
Mr. Huebschle believes Bavaria should close its famous breweries before allowing the chemical industry to face gas shortages.
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Meanwhile, Rosie Steinberger, a member of the Bavarian regional parliament, is now working in a dark office to cut down on her consumption, and is debating whether to draw Munich’s inevitable wrath by suggesting that they cancel the world-famous Oktoberfest. His return is planned for this fall after a two-year pause due to the pandemic.
“I haven’t asked yet,” she said with a nervous laugh. “But I also think that when people say there shouldn’t be taboos about what we’re looking at – well, that needs to be thought about.”