Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
When I entered my neighborhood gym recently in the late afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that the foyer and weight room were uncharacteristically darkened.
Usually, bright overhead fluorescent lights illuminate every nook and cranny of the place – including my own sweaty reflection in the full-length mirrors.
Upon inquiry, the trainer told me that the fitness center had undertaken more than a couple energy saving measures: switching to LED lighting, using just half of it at any given time, as well as turning down the thermostat to 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) and slashing a few hours from the sauna schedule.
With the onset of colder weather, many Germans are already skimping on small comforts to survive an energy crisis that, say experts and politicos alike, has just begun and could spell blackouts, rationing and chilly apartments, should the winter be a punishing one.
Russia’s war on Ukraine and its embargo on most energy supplies to the West has thrown Europe into perilous, uncharted waters, which economists expect to trigger a recession across the entire continent.
Since the start of the invasion, Germany has steadily reduced its gas imports from Russia – from 55% of its total gas imports in 2021 down to 26% by the end of June 2022, according to the World Economic Forum.
Then in early September Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline indefinitely, citing an oil leak. (Though in Germany’s case, gas reserves are filled at more than 90% capacity.)
Still, the energy crisis isn’t going away, with a European Union embargo on Russian heating oil coming into effect in February.
In Germany, where the energy crisis is particularly acute – due to former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successive governments’ foolhardy moves to increase gas imports from Russia, including after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea – Berlin has already put into effect energy savings ordinances.
These regulations – which went into effect on Sept. 1 and will run for six months – apply to private households, public facilities and the private sector, too. (Although the measures are binding, there is no penalty for energy wasters.)
Germans take the plunge
Under the new measures, temperatures in public office buildings should not exceed 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit), cities across Germany are to switch off night lights at landmarks, monuments and prominent buildings, and retail stores are required to close entrances when heating inside.
Private swimming pools may no longer be heated with gas and electricity, and public ones must be lower than 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit). The ordinances apply to electricity consumption, too, since the gas price in Germany is closely tied to the cost of electricity.
Step into my Berlin office today and you’ll find everybody is wearing sweaters – I wear two, with wool socks and occasionally a scarf. There’s an unofficial contest between families as to who can hold out the longest without reaching for the thermostat.
At home, my little family has sworn off baths (swift showers please), and lights are on only in the rooms we’re occupying. We’ve invested in a wool curtain inside our apartment’s front door to keep out the draft.
My friend Bill, a local translator, echoing the sentiments of many people, told me that that he fears a gigantic energy bill will bust their household budget. As such, Bill hasn’t turned his heating on yet this year – no one I know has – and wears a sweater at home. He also has a new method of showering: one minute under warm water, turns it off, lathers up, and then rinses off.
Of course, open a local newspaper or browse German media online and you’ll be inundated with yet more energy savings tips.
One thing is for certain: Germany’s cute little Christmas markets are going to be a whole lot less “gemütlich” – “cheerful” – this year, with some cities pulling the plug on seasonal lighting.
Among my social circle and neighbors there’s not a lot of grousing about the adjustments – yet. That said, I hear reports on the radio of students at Berlin’s Humboldt University complaining that 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) is too cold for serious studying. The temperature of public pools is so low that swimming teachers describe children emerging from the water with blue lips.
A price worth paying
Green Party politician and Germany’s economy and energy minister, Robert Habeck, anticipates that these new measures will reduce gas consumption by around 2% to 2.5%. This represents what Habeck calls a “small but indispensable contribution” to the government’s stated goal of lowering use in Germany by 20% over last year.
Though not everyone is on board with the government’s energy policy and sanctions against Russia. Thousands of people turned out in the streets of several eastern German states last month to protest soaring energy prices.
Elsewhere in Europe, tens of thousands of Czech citizens disgruntled with their government’s handling of soaring energy prices, inflation, and supply-chain disturbances have also taken to the streets.
So far this year, Germans have done a noble job in cutting back gas use, which is down almost 15% in the first six months on last year’s figures, according to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries. But, say experts, much of this is due to scaled back production, not the implementation of the range of longer-term energy efficiency measures that experts recommend – from insulating walls to rescheduling the time of industrial energy use and installing smart thermostats, among many others.
“There are many optimization and energy savings strategies that are affordable and will, in the long run, save everyone a lot of money,” Stefan M. Büttner, an energy expert at the University of Stuttgart, told me. The problem, he says, is that many of them are unfamiliar and involve kicking old habits.
“We’re all in this together and every saved kilowatt helps,” says Büttner.
Meanwhile at my gym, the next step is to put a lock on the radiator valve – as members have apparently been cranking up the heat of their own accord. Obviously, even energy-conscious Germans have a limit.