The word “immersion” can terrify Irish people of a certain age, raised with a heating system that, if left on by accident, could trigger family rows and huge electricity bills.
Like an overheated water tank, political tensions over heating systems finally erupted in Berlin on Tuesday, exposing deep and unresolved tensions in Germany’s three-party coalition government over the pace – and cost – of climate change measures.
To reach Germany’s climate targets a new “building heating law” requires all heating systems installed from 2024 to run on at least 65 per cent renewable energy. German homeowners who replace their older oil and gas heating systems with more modern heat pump systems will be incentivised by about 30 per cent of the cost.
Modern heat pump systems, which use about a quarter of the energy of a traditional gas boiler, suck heat out of the air to warm water and rooms.
Although cabinet has passed the draft heating bill, plans to introduce it to parliament this week collapsed on Tuesday. Senior government figures are warning of the greatest crisis yet in chancellor Olaf Scholz’s 18 month-old alliance.
Despite weeks of heated debate on the heating bill, huge questions remain over cost. Even with sweeteners on offer, critics say the new heat pump systems could cost households about €17,000 each. Green politicians insist that homeowners on welfare are entitled to an extra 20 per cent subsidy on top of other incentives. With lingering concerns that low-earners and tenants will be disproportionately affected, the Bild tabloid has ramped up uncertainty still further with an energetic campaign against the plan.
Spotting an opportunity, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) announced on Tuesday it was blocking the first parliamentary reading of a bill, claiming it is poorly drafted and paternalistic.
“A law that encroaches so deeply on people’s freedom of choice cannot be discussed at such a gallop,” said Michael Kruse, FDP energy spokesman.
That has infuriated its coalition allies, with Green parliamentary chief Irene Mihalic claiming the FDP blockade showed the party “is not primarily concerned with questions of content but of profiling for its own sake”.
After months of internal fighting, the heating bill had pushed the responsible Green politician, federal energy minister Robert Habeck, on to the back foot.
Last week it emerged that his state secretary on energy questions, who is responsible for the heating bill, backed, as head of a government energy body, a candidate who was best man at his wedding – without making their relationship known.
Mr Habeck initially stood by his aide but dropped him when a second violation of internal compliance rules emerged, over government funding for a national climate protection project where the official’s sister worked.
The official’s subsequent resignation did little to boost confidence in the Greens or the heating bill. Now the FDP is demanding the law is thrown out and a new bill drafted, as happened to a previous Mr Habeck plan to cap winter energy prices.
On Tuesday Bild published a poll claiming that one in two Germans want Mr Habeck to resign, with just 28 per cent happy for him to remain.
Sliding to 16th place in political rankings is a rapid reversal of fortune for the 53-year-old figure many Green supporters saw as a reserve chancellor.
The bruising heating row has had a knock-on effect on his party as a whole: a year after riding high in second place in polls on 22 per cent, the Greens have slid into fourth place behind the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Half of Germany’s 19 million residential homes heat with natural gas and a quarter with oil. Industry players say the drawn-out row over the plan, designed to boost climate protection, is having the opposite effect, with a rush to install gas and oil heating systems before the ban comes into effect.
From builders to environmental campaigners, all are urging Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor Scholz to intervene in a tug-of-war between his junior coalition partners that is unsettling construction companies, homeowners and businesses.
After 18 months of coalition conflict, the FDP block on his heating bill prompted Mr Habeck to sound a warning to the chancellery: “This is a breach of promise. I’d like to note that the FDP is not keeping its word.”