AUGSBURG, Germany — Wolfgang Hübschle entered city government expecting a simple life, planning things like traditional lederhosen-filled festivals.
Instead, these days he has the unpopular task of calculating which traffic lights to put out, how to lower temperatures in offices and swimming pools – and perhaps, if need be, unplug beloved breweries. but energy-guzzling Bavarians.
City officials like Mr Hübschle, the economic adviser to the Bavarian provincial town of Augsburg, have been on the front lines of a geopolitical tussle with Russia since European Union leaders agreed this week to try to cut natural gas consumption by 15%, fearing that President Vladimir V. Putin could reduce its exports in retaliation for Europe’s support for Ukraine.
Nowhere is this fear deeper than in Germany, Europe’s largest consumer of Russian gas. With more than half of its gas supply coming from Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine, cheap Russian gas was a mainstay of Germany’s mighty industry. Officials had even planned to double with a second pipeline from Russia, until the war forced the project to be suspended.
Augsburg is now among the places leading a growing state-to-state conservation effort, as some German cities offer financial incentives to reduce gas consumption, while others dim streetlights. But these efforts already extend far beyond Germany.
Cities across Europe are finding different ways to help citizens reduce their energy consumption. Barcelona offers home energy efficiency ratings, while Warsaw subsidizes homes that replace fossil fuel stoves with heat pumps. In the Meurthe-et-Moselle region of eastern France, a dozen villages turned off their streetlights at midnight.
All in an effort to outsmart Mr. Putin, whose Mr. Hübschle, oddly for a local official, finds himself trying to read minds.
Even if Europe simply “gets by” with the current cut in gas supplies, Mr Hübschle thinks that could deter Russia from trying to cut off supplies this winter.
“If Putin feels like he can really harm the economy of the biggest European countries, he won’t hesitate to cut off the gas supply,” he said. “If it doesn’t hurt too much, he’ll choose to take the money rather than inflict the pain.”
Although not binding, for the time being the EU consumption targets have sent a clear signal not only of European determination to stand up to Mr Putin, but also of genuine concern about the risk that European economies will be in danger, especially if Germany, the continent’s economic powerhouse, takes a hit.
Kremlin-controlled Gazprom highlighted the threat this week by cutting flows through Nord Stream 1 to Germany to just 20%, citing, unconvincingly to many, problems with its German-made turbines.
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The European Union has started a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate efforts.
Around half of all homes in Germany are heated with gas, while a third of the country’s gas is used by industry. If the coming winter is particularly cold, a cut would be brutal.
But future weather is hard to predict, as are Moscow’s ultimate intentions. Economists are also struggling to assess whether a shutdown could leave Germany facing a recession of 3%, or 20.
“If our smartest economists have no idea and admit it, then how could I?” said Mr. Hübschle.
What he does know is that with soaring energy prices, Augsburg was already facing an 80% increase in spending, or around 11 million euros. Authorities are scrambling to avoid passing those 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 site of the Unesco World Heritage.
The city’s moves came after months of prodding from German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who took painful steps for a green politician, such as reopening coal-fired power stations to replace those that are burning gas and the rapid expansion of infrastructure for liquefied natural resources. gas, as well as obtaining contracts for deliveries from Qatar and the United States.
In a recent social media post, Mr Habeck urged people to change their daily habits as part of the effort to meet the country’s 20% savings target.
“If you’re thinking, OK, swapping the shower head, defrosting the freezer or turning down the heat, none of that makes a difference – you’re wrong,” Mr Habeck said. “It’s an excuse to do nothing.”
Some officials have expressed concern that the government is fueling the panic. And some hope the incentives will encourage careful energy use.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pledged to increase housing subsidies and protect tenants from evictions for unpaid heating bills. This week, Munich announced a 100 euro “energy bonus” to households that would reduce their annual consumption by 20%, and its utility company launched an energy-saving competition for customers this fall.
The Germans seem to react. The Federal Energy and Water Association said the country was using almost 15% less gas compared to the same period last year, a trend it attributes in part to the record price of energy. Costs will rise further by early October when the government introduces a gas surcharge.
In response, heaters and wood-fired ovens are selling out in many cities, and there’s a long wait for mini solar panels to power some home appliances.
Claudia Kemfert, an energy economist at the German Institute for Economic Research, said these savings were essential, but feared the country had wasted months on appeals to citizens instead of taking stronger action with businesses.
Companies have shown that they can reduce their gas consumption when they have no choice. Automaker Mercedes-Benz said on Wednesday it has cut gas mileage by 10% and could cut up to 50% while maintaining full-throttle operations.
“We can achieve a lot through market-based approaches, we need to exhaust all the options we have on this front in order to avoid an emergency situation,” Ms Kemfert said.
City officials say they will have no way of understanding how much their efforts can help until they get more data.
In Munich, capital of the southern state of Bavaria and epicenter of German industry, deputy mayor Katrin Habenschaden is skeptical.
“Honestly, I don’t believe this can be compensated for, although I appreciate it thanks to our current efforts to save energy.” she says. “I rather believe that we just need other options or other solutions.”
As an assistant in charge of managing economic affairs, she helps the city with a kind of economic triage – assessing what kind of rationing different businesses might face. Businesses big and small are courting the city, to argue why they should be spared.
Bavaria is of particular concern because it is home to companies that are powerhouses of German industry, such as BMW and Siemens. The Conservative regional government’s reluctance to challenge its heavy reliance on gas and push for renewables has also made it particularly vulnerable, said Ms Habenschaden, an environmentalist.
In Augsburg and Munich, local authorities have asked every city employee to send in their suggestions. An Augsburg official pointed to the city’s two data centers as an important source of energy. They are now wondering if they can count on just one.
More discreetly, many local leaders are wondering about the energy-intensive German traditions that might need to be scrapped, if the country were to be forced into energy rationing: beer making? Christmas markets?
Mr Hübschle said he believed Bavaria should close its famous breweries before letting its chemical industry face gas shortages.
Meanwhile, Rosi Steinberger, a member of Bavaria’s regional parliament, now works in a dark office to cut down on her drinking and wonders whether to provoke Munich’s inevitable ire by suggesting that it cancel its famous Oktoberfest. He is expected to return this fall after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
“I haven’t asked yet,” she said, with a nervous laugh. “But I also think when people say there should be no taboos in what we consider – well, that’s what you have to think about.”