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Germany's energy options are dwindling as it tries to break ties with Russia


Germany has approved energy-saving measures for the winter that will limit heating and lighting for public buildings. It may not be enough to meet demand. Germany depends on Russia for a third of its natural gas. And because of tensions over the war, Russia could turn the gas spigot off at any time. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports on Germany's dwindling energy options.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's market day in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, but Ulrike Steinke isn't buying much.

ULRIKE STEINKE: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: The retired kindergarten teacher says her pension's not big enough for the rising price of food nor energy.

STEINKE: (Through interpreter) I'm really worried about the winter. My place is drafty, so I'm considering living in the smallest room - the one that heats up quickly. I'll probably leave the heating off in the rest of the apartment.

SCHMITZ: These are the choices facing millions of Germans as the price of energy has risen four times that from a year ago. The government has urged citizens to turn off lights and take shorter showers, and citizens have urged their government to hurry up and find reliable energy alternatives to Russian gas. That's why some were surprised when Germany's economy minister announced the country would not extend the life of its three remaining nuclear power plants scheduled to shut down at the end of the year.

FRANZISKA HOLZ: We do not need any further use of the nuclear power plants beyond their current legal lifetime, simply because gas is only partially used in the power sector.

SCHMITZ: Franziska Holz is an energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research. She says only a third of Germany's natural gas is used to generate electricity, and Germany's replacing that by burning more coal. That's why, she says, extending the life of nuclear power plants won't make a difference. The problem, she says, is that another third of Germany's natural gas is used solely for heating homes and offices.

HOLZ: And that is really a part of our gas demand, where it's hard to say, bring that to zero. So if we want to keep households at least a little bit warm, we need to keep those plants running.

SCHMITZ: Holz is confident there won't be any electricity blackouts in Germany this winter. She's less confident German industry - which relies on the remaining third of natural gas - will have what it needs to get itself through the winter. To ensure it does, she says Germans will have to further cut their use of natural gas.

HELENA MARSCHALL: Of course, like, we need to deal with the gas crisis we are now facing in the short term. But at the same time, we still have this other crisis we're facing, which is the climate crisis.

SCHMITZ: Helena Marschall, spokesperson for climate group Fridays for Future, says as Germany's government scrambles to find quick solutions to its energy woes, it should keep the climate in mind. Example - Germany's decision to burn more coal to get out of its current predicament.

MARSCHALL: Increasing coal production for a short amount of time, like to address the short-term energy crisis, is fine as long as those additional emissions that are now being put out through that are reduced in another sector or, like, in the next few years are reduced.

SCHMITZ: But that, she says, would require trusting the German government to do that.

MARSCHALL: And we don't have that trust - right? - because it does not look like the government is taking the situation of multiple crises that we find ourselves in very seriously.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Back at the market in Kreuzberg, Ulrikie Steinke agrees.

STEINKE: (Through interpreter) On the one hand, we need to source energy quickly. On the other hand, the money the government is throwing at fossil fuels and maybe even nuclear power plants should be invested in renewables so that we have options in the near future.

SCHMITZ: Sure, Germans will have to tighten their belts for a couple of winters, but the retired teacher poses the question - wouldn't it be a good lesson for us? Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "WEIGHT OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.