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German residents plan for heating problems in winter

Sinem Özdemir
July 15, 2022

Germany's fear of a freezing winter is growing as Russia signals it might cut off its gas supply. People are not optimistic, but they have some ideas to cope with a possible crisis.

young woman in a thick coat with faux-fur hood lining
Germans are bracing for donning layers in their homes should a solution not emergeImage: Rolf Kremming/imago images

"Unfortunately, we have failed, and there is nothing left to do but save (energy)," says Alex Kling.

Alex seems already to have accepted his fate and is now concerned only with the question of "where do we go from here?" And the 30-year-old master's student from Bonn is not the only one preoccupied with the issue of how to save energy this winter. 

It is hard to imagine a freezing winter in the middle of a hot, dry summer with highs of up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). But if Russia cuts the gas off, a severe problem awaits Germany. 

Alex, a member of a housing project, is familiar with the concept of "solidarity." Eight grown-ups, including Alex and a 2-year-old, are living in this house in the middle of Bonn's old city.

Alex Kling and his flatmates in front of their house
Alex Kling and his flatmates have been discussing their options to save energy.Image: Sinem Özdemir/DW

Some of its current residents bought it about eight years ago. The house belongs to no single person but to all of them at the same time. This means none of the residents claim ownership of the house, but as long as they live in it, it belongs to them, and they make all the decisions about it together. In addition to abstaining from rent speculation, they also aim for the sustainable redevelopment of the house and want to try a low-resource lifestyle in solidarity. 

With a possible crisis looming, the supportive feeling of being in a small community is a big help. Alex explains that the residents will not have to fear a lack of gas since their house is heated using oil.

They usually need two oil tanks to heat the 235-square-meter (2,529.52 square foot) house in winter. "That's why we already ordered one tank last week. Because we know the prices will rise even further." One tank will now cost them double compared to before; they paid €1,120 ($1,125) to fill one tank last year, while today one tank costs €2,640.  

Alex Kling standing in front of a gate with 'Solidarity knows no borders' written on it in German
Alex Kling, who lives in Bonn, is a member of a housing project.Image: Sinem Özdemir/DW

"So we are already discussing the current situation and evaluating some options," Alex says. As a first step, they decided to share the financial burden of the house, including, at a minimum, certain ancillary costs (Nebenkosten) on the basis of their incomes, to support each other through the crisis. 

Learning from crisis and getting ready for the next one  

In Germany, households would enjoy legal security in a gas emergency and would be prioritized along with social institutions such as hospitals. 

Cedric Teichmann relies also on the current regulations for his company. He is the founder and CEO of the co-working space "The 9th" in Bonn. Since he doesn't own the place, which is heated by gas, the alternatives are limited, so he needs to communicate everything with the landlord.

"But I wouldn’t be afraid that we will have to sit here in the cold," he says. "We are the only company in the building; the others are just regular apartments. They can't separate us from them, so the heating will not be shut down."

Cedric Teichmann
Cedric Teichmann is the founder and CEO of the co-working space 'The 9th' in BonnImage: Max Zindel/DW

However, industrial lobbies have been objecting to the current regulations, claiming that economic stability and people's incomes depend on industry. They argue, therefore, that industry should not be first on the firing line in a gas crisis.

Cedric seems to stay calm no matter what scenario we discuss. "I don't think we'll have to freeze," he says. Already having faced a crisis like the pandemic, he has some experience that seems to give him confidence in his business.  

To comply with measures implemented to tackle COVID, Cedric got a new ventilation system installed at his company. He realised that this could be a good starting point to cope with an impending crisis in that any loss of energy could at least be reduced to a certain extent. "I already had a good experience with this before. It is a ventilation system with heat recovery, which means that 80% of the energy of the used air, which is warm, is used to heat up the pure flowing air, which is cold, again in the winter. In other words, it's like opening a window. But you only have 20% energy loss.” 

The co-working space 'The 9th'
The co-working space 'The 9th' has a special ventilation system installedImage: Max Zindel/DW

Farnaz Far is also confident she can handle any upcoming crisis. The 59-year-old social worker, who has been living in Germany for over 30 years, says she is used to tough times. "I'm from Iran. So I have seen a lot in my life; revolution, war, and lack of goods due to various embargoes. I am used to not having electricity for up to 10 hours a day. I am used to not having onions or potatoes for months or finding them only for very high prices as expensive as meat. Therefore, I have had a lot of practice in dealing with such issues." 

Farnaz, who studied economics in Germany, explains how rising prices might have a domino effect on the economy. "It is not only a matter of heating. Many people are not even aware of possible consequences," she says.

She has used simple methods to heat her one-room apartment in the past.

"Like I use this tea light heater here. It works perfectly for me. At least until December, when it gets freezing, it helps. After that, it's not efficient. Paraffin heaters are more effective, for example. The downside of them is probably the smell," she says.

Tea light heater
For Farnaz, this tea light heater has been a lifesaver in winter. Image: Sinem Özdemir/DW

Farnaz had thought about alternative energy resources long before discussions about a potential crisis. She is trying to adopt a minimalistic lifestyle and is inspired by the ideas of the permaculture movement.  

Too late for everything? 

"What are the best alternatives to a gas heater?" Kerem Aysert, a Cologne-based heating installer, says he often gets asked this question. Many people who are worried about a cold winter without gas call him to get information, but so far, this has not yet translated into more business for him.

"That's because people don't have the money," he says. "Oil prices, food prices, inflation … Everything went up. So people spend money on urgent things instead of saving for heater renovations. Life has gotten difficult in Germany." 

He mainly advises his customers to use heat pumps. "Because it works basically with air. You don't need gas or oil. And the air does not cost a thing," he laughs, and adds, "Well, not yet, at least." 

Another advantage of implementing this kind of renewable energy is that the state partially sponsors it as part of Germany's climate protection program.  

Alex, who studies renewable energy at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, agrees it is a good option. "Well, the alternatives have already been there for a long time: heat pumps or long-term alternative hydrogen heaters, etc ... Unfortunately, we have failed to implement these over the last 10 years."

He regrets that his household, like the German state itself, is also falling behind. They are currently working with an architect on a "renovation roadmap" that encompasses the steps that need to be taken to increase the house's energy efficiency so that minimal heat is lost. After they are done with the insulation they aim to get a new heating system.

"We are thinking about a geothermal heat pump. This is a heating system based on the Earth's temperature, assisted by a photovoltaic system. We can then use the electricity that the sun generates for heating," Alex explains with excitement. However, this plan will take some time to implement, so he says for the upcoming winter, they plan to turn down the heater very low, put on some thick clothes and try to survive with one tank of oil instead of two.

Present worries outweighing future ones

But looking at the future and worrying about a cold winter still seems a remote problem to some others. Farnaz says she still supports some of the refugees she met at the camp where she used to work and mentions two sisters (aged 17 and 22) who have been struggling to stay in Germany.

"When I asked about their plans for the next winter and if they are prepared for a possible crisis, they looked at me as if I were from another planet," Farnaz says. "They said they don't even know if they can pay the rent for the next month and that thinking about the distant future is a luxury for them. So I, along with others who support them, bought them a refrigerator that does not consume much energy because the one they had before was really old and was causing the power bill to soar. I also gave them some tips for heating and saving energy — the same methods I mentioned earlier."

Farnaz Far with a woman she has looked after as part of her work with refugees
Farnaz (R) still supports some of the refugees she met at the camp where she used to work.Image: privat

She points out that the sisters are still lucky because, despite getting little support from the state, they do continue to receive help from other people. "Imagine what other refugees have to go through; some people have existential problems here," she says. 

Local governments are preparing for winter  

"We already have to save (energy) in the summer so that we can have warm homes in the winter," says Helmut Dedy, head of the Association of German Cities (Deutscher Städtetag). Following its recommendations, many cities and municipalities in Germany are expected to mull and adopt energy-saving measures.

The city administration of Düsseldorf told DW that it is currently examining the association's recommendations on conserving energy in municipal buildings. But a total shutdown of hot water and heating in the facilities is not planned in the short term. Düsseldorf announced that it would reduce the water temperature in all indoor pools by a total of 2 degrees Celsius as recommended by the German Swimming Pool Association (DGfDB). 

Swimmer seen from above swimming down a lane in an otherwise empty part of a pool
Some cities will reduce the water temperature in indoor pools to save energy.Image: Guido Kirchner/dpa/picture alliance

The City of Cologne told DW that it had formed a task force to focus on possible energy-saving measures and energy security. The city of Bonn is also building a similar task force.  

The Association of German Cities also proposed some establishments that are to serve as warm shelters, especially for the elderly who cannot cover their energy bills. Several cities plan to turn sports halls into "warming halls" for people to keep warm in case they feel cold at home. 

Edited by: Timothy Jones