Frank Krusche says he is not against heat pumps in principle. It is just that to install one he would have to knock down his house and build a new one.
“They only work in low-energy houses — and mine isn’t,” said Krusche, an engineer from eastern Berlin. “To make it truly energy efficient, you’d have to rebuild the whole shell, including the roof.”
The reason he is even having to contemplate such drastic action is because of a government bill that in effect bans new gas boilers in Germany from January 1 next year. From then on, newly installed heating systems would have to be at least 65 per cent powered by renewables.
Dubbed the “heat hammer” by the popular press, it is one of the most radical pieces of climate legislation Germany has ever produced. Ministers say it is pivotal to the country’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2045.
But the bill has triggered a popular backlash of exceptional intensity. Germans are worried about the enormous cost of switching from gas or oil-fired boilers to heat pumps and the tight deadlines the bill imposes.
“People are outraged and furious,” said Petra Uertz of the Residential Property Association. “They can’t understand why it has to happen so quickly.”
The controversy over the bill has pitched chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government into its worst crisis since taking office nearly 18 months ago. MPs were supposed to debate it in its first reading this week, but the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP) — one of the three parties in Scholz’s coalition — postponed the parliamentary discussion, saying the bill still needed work.
Suddenly, the plan to pass the law before MPs rose for their summer recess was thrown into disarray. Green economy minister and deputy chancellor Robert Habeck, the bill’s main sponsor, accused the FDP of a “breach of promise”.
But the FDP believes it has public opinion on its side. A poll by Civey this week, carried out for the newspaper Die Zeit, found that 70 per cent of respondents wanted the bill to be withdrawn.
“This law affects 66mn Germans . . . and there is enormous disquiet,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a senior FDP MP. The Greens’ obsession with passing it before the summer break was absurd, she told public broadcaster ARD. “We shouldn’t be tying it to a particular date come hell or high water, there are things in it that must be changed first,” she added.
The disquiet is reflected in the Greens’ approval ratings, which this week slumped to just 14 per cent, two points behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In regional elections in the city state of Bremen earlier this month the Greens’ saw their share of the vote decline by 5 points.
There is a consensus in Germany that the way buildings are heated must change. Fossil fuels are used to heat about 75 per cent of Germany’s housing stock and about 40 per cent of all boilers are more than 20 years old.
Yet under the government’s climate plans, CO2 emissions from buildings are supposed to decline from around 112mn tonnes a year currently to 67mn tonnes a year by 2030. Such a steep reduction can only be achieved, ministers say, if gas boilers are replaced by renewable systems such as heat pumps.
“We’re not imposing this on people just for fun, but because reality is forcing us to do so,” said one senior Green official. “It would be bad politics to say ‘we’re not doing it because it’s difficult’.”
German officials also argue that the cost of running fossil-fuel based systems will rise substantially in the next few years as the EU’s emissions trading scheme is extended to buildings and people have to pay for the greenhouse gases emitted by their homes.
But the proposed boiler ban has already led to a series of unintended consequences. Thousands of Germans are seeking to beat the ban by installing new gas boilers before the January 1 deadline set by the bill, locking in CO2 emissions for decades to come.
Around 168,000 gas boilers were sold in Germany in the first quarter of this year, a 100 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the ZVSHK, a trade association for heating, plumbing and air conditioning engineers.
“That’s a big step backwards,” said Helmut Bramann, head of the ZVSHK. “And it’s a result of the great uncertainty in the population.”
One of those taking this step is Maike Biert, a resident of Königswinter on the river Rhine. She toyed with the idea of replacing her 30-year-old gas boiler with a heat pump but was deterred by the €25,000-€30,000 price tag. Looking forward to paying off her mortgage in seven to eight years and having more money for her children’s education, she shrank at the idea of taking out another big loan.
“They’re asking way too much of families like ours,” said Biert.
Ministers say generous grants will be made available, with the government covering 30 per cent of the costs of installing a heat pump. But a recent survey by the GIH, a trade body for energy consultants, found that the German authorities are taking 125 days on average to process a grant application for heating and renovation projects.
There are also big concerns that there are not enough plumbers in the country to implement the government’s planned “Wärmewende”, or “heating revolution”, and those that are available have too many other jobs to do.
“Tradesmen currently have a 20-week order backlog,” said Bramann of the ZVSHK. “So even if you take on a job now, you might not actually get it done by January 2024.”
Other issues lurk, chief among them is the strain the heat pumps will place on Germany’s electricity network. Earlier this month, Vonovia, Europe’s largest listed landlord, said a lack of electricity supply meant it had not been able to connect about 70 of its newly installed heat pumps to the grid.
“This Wärmewende is just not feasible,” said AfD MP Marc Bernhard during a Bundestag debate on the issue on Wednesday. “We don’t have enough skilled workers, we don’t have enough electricity and people don’t have enough money to pay for this madness.”
Even those who sympathise with the government’s climate agenda, such as Frank Krusche, are angry at the haste with which the Greens are seeking to push through the boiler ban.
“Policymaking should inspire confidence, not sow fear and uncertainty,” said Krusche. “This law just raises more questions than it answers.”