I visited Berlin in late September for the first time, looking forward to visiting with family and exploring Berlin’s complex history. While adventures were had, a much deeper series of conversations happened around the kitchen table over shared meals. How was life unfolding amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent ban of energy supply to the West?

For decades, Germany has underestimated the risks associated with its dependence on Russian gas, and before the full-scale invasion in February, the country bought 55 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. With the war and European Union sanctions, the Kremlin cut deliveries. By late September, the far-reaching effects were noticeable. I was surprised by the extent to which residents, local vendors and independent stores were already being affected by the energy crisis. Winter was not yet on the horizon, yet the range of measures to conserve energy and the supply chain interruptions were notable. My cousin, Francesca, in her adopted home of Berlin, provided much context to myriad questions.

Berlin is no stranger to hardship. To live in this city is to be a time traveller. Step outside my apartment in the scruffy, bohemian neighbourhood of Kreuzberg and you will stumble over stolpersteine — tiny, polished brass cobblestones that memorialize the murdered Jews who lived on this very street before Nazi rule. Around the corner is a massive 19th-century brick gasometer building that went on to become an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. After the war, the gasometer-turned-bunker housed refugees fleeing East Berlin for the West. Originally, however, the building supplied gas for Berlin’s streetlights and has therefore become, for me, a striking symbol of the trouble Germany’s capital faces today.

The Fichte-Bunker is the last remaining gasometer of its kind in Berlin and is under heritage protection. Photo by Francesca Schulz-Bianco

I live one block away on the ground floor of a building from 1900. It’s a classic altbau apartment, with high ceilings, aged stucco mouldings and towering exposed pipes that emit warmth when our upstairs neighbours turn on their radiators at the beginning of the cold season. Last year, this allowed us to piggyback on their energy bills. This year, however, the pipes are still ice cold. Although the mornings are now unmistakably crisp, our neighbours have yet to turn on the heat.

This has as much to do with Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine as with Germany’s energy policies during the long reign of Angela Merkel and her predecessors. They have made the country ever more dependent on Russian oil and gas and have left Germany uniquely exposed to Russian attempts to use energy as a weapon. The situation is so serious that it could, according to experts, potentially lead to rationing and blackouts if the winter is particularly cold.

The good news first: German gas reserves are now more than 99 per cent full. But if the supply were to come solely from these storages, it would keep the country running for a mere 69 days. This would completely exhaust reserves and would require refilling for next winter — likely without a single drop from Russia. To prevent this horror scenario, the government is trying to save energy wherever possible.

Germany's dependence on Russian oil and gas has left the country exposed to the Kremlin's attempts to use energy as a weapon, write Francesca Schulz-Bianco @franky_says & @jacqkoerner #StandWithUkraine

The target is to save 20 per cent of gas consumption nationwide — while keeping energy affordable. To help citizens cope with sky-high prices, the forthcoming “price break” for gas will effectively subsidize 80 per cent of households’ basic consumption to give people strong financial incentives to save energy. Reaching the national target, however, will require citizens, businesses and public institutions to come together in their efforts.

The government is trying to lead by example: the temperature in public buildings must not exceed 19 C. Public pools have turned down the thermostat by two degrees and their saunas will not open this season. Visit Berlin’s centre and you will find that the German Reichstag — the monumental structure that lies in the city’s political heart — has dimmed its external illumination. The iconic Berlin TV tower in Alexanderplatz has also gone dark. One of winter’s bright lights is Germany’s famous Christmas markets. However, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental non-profit, is urging cities to unplug instead and skip the twinkly lights this year.

These all may seem like appropriate policies. In these desperate times, however, Germany’s top politicians have gone even further to make an impact. Back in August, Green Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck inspired much debate by announcing that he was reducing his showers to two minutes. A video meme on Instagram then went viral showing Habeck’s many faces plastered to a radiator valve. As the valve turned and the numbers rose, so did his increasing fury.

The government has also launched a broad campaign that includes energy-saving tips for households and a hotline for general questions. While my husband and I care about the environment, this is the first time we are really being forced to think about our own energy consumption. We took a field trip to Bauhaus (Germany’s answer to Home Depot) and purchased weatherstripping to insulate our windows. We are taking shorter showers, turning off the water while lathering up. It’s almost become an unspoken contest between us: who has more self-restraint? Who will ultimately save us — and the country — more energy?

Yet, ours are easy sacrifices to make. Many around us face much harder choices. The flower merchant at our local farmers’ market can no longer choose what he brings in; energy costs are a driving input, and many stems just aren’t worth producing anymore. Some Berlin bakeries are reportedly considering moving to brick-style loaves to save oven space and curb energy costs. But all of this is no comparison to the esthetician I see across the street, who arrived in February with her six-year-old son from Ukraine. While I ponder my shorter showers, she’s thinking about her mother who chose to stay in Odessa. Due to power outages, she says her family is now collecting wood to heat their home.

Late autumn in Berlin is notoriously gloomy. The rain falls in horizontal slats and the pummelling wind seems to blow from all directions. Outside our apartment, the copper-coloured leaves have almost finished their annual descent. As the seasons change, the energy crisis will inevitably shift into a higher gear.

Germany has spent much of the summer preparing for this moment, with some measure of success. But as the threat of the energy crisis looms, the coming months will show whether its citizens are both capable and willing to change their ways in order to weather the storm.

Francesca Schulz-Bianco and Jacqueline Koerner are cousins, a generation and a continent apart.

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Thank you for this. I have good friends in Berlin and I'm worried about them. Canadians should pay attention.

Since there was such a backlash against Covid 19 restrictions in many Western democracies, I wonder how this will pay out. Will people stay united during this period of energy rationing, or will people get fed up. Will it result in more polarization, thus leaving the country vulnerable to far right extremism?

It's disappointing to not be able to receive deeper, more nuanced reportage on this issue from the NO. Personal anecdotes are less than a snapshot in time.

German industry has suddenly become interested in green hydrogen for steel making and the government may be one of the first to crack the vested interest barrier to bring grid-scale electricity storage into rapid commercialization without resorting to lithium, thanks to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

Germany, after all, courageously underwrote the first wave of R&D into renewables through its feed-in tariffs way back when, and therein underwrote the first plummet in the cost of renewables. China copycatted Germany and now the costs outcompete all fossil fuels used in electricity.

Yes, Germany still burns coal; yes, Germany made the irrational decision to cancel nuclear power; but the scale of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and against Europe through fossil fuel hostage-taking turned the German government into a leader again -- but only after the winter reservoirs of gas were filled and new LNG terminals were built for non-Russian gas. The Chancellor said that this is a temporary bridge to vastly expanded renewables and energy efficacy.

Germany developed the Passive House, a building design that is tops in energy conservation and indoor air quality. It has high speed rail, mid-speed rail and slow speed rail (most of it electrified). Its cities are largely compact and walkable. And it underwrites R&D and has developed an economic and social contract lead. Canada needs to learn from nations like Germany, instead of kowtowing to fossil interests and US economic initiatives.

The larger picture will not fully be brought to the public at large by discussing the length of one's showers.