Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (2024)

Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (1)

English

Concerns about a blackout in Germany are growing, with more and more regions preparing for a long-term power outage. But what does that mean? We outline what could happen in a worst-case scenario.

Beatrice Achterberg, Berlin; Illustrations: Charlotte Eckstein

9 min

Here we illustrate the possible consequences of a widespread power blackout in Germany lasting several days . This text explains how such a blackout could occur.

Since there has never been a power blackout in Germany lasting several days and affecting several federal states, we can only roughly estimate how something like this would play out. Our scenario is based, among other things, on information from the Federal Office for Disaster Relief and Civil Protection, the Berlin Senate, the police, and the Charité University Hospital. Some institutions we asked for information, such as banks, gave only vague responses. Others, such as mobile phone companies, did not respond at all.

An important source of information is a 2011 report by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag. It is titled: «Endangerment and Vulnerability of Modern Societies.» Almost everyone who has ever studied the topic of blackouts in Germany in any detail knows the text. It describes the consequences of a prolonged power outage as a «national catastrophe» and predicts a «collapse of the entire society.»

The scenario: The lights go out in seven federal states

On Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, at 8:30 a.m. sharp, the power goes out in seven German states: Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Berlin and Brandenburg. The neighboring areas of Poland and the Czech Republic are also disconnected from the European power grid. The reason is an overload of the grid, which led to a frequency drop.

Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (2)

Day 1

The lights are off. That’s the first thing that stands out. From one moment to the next, switches stop working. No device responds. As if a fuse had blown, everything is suddenly silent. No noise from videos, no whirring refrigerator, no rumbling washing machine: In the event of a blackout, background noise is abruptly reduced.

At the airports, arriving planes can still land, but on the orders of the police, no more planes take off. Since the power goes out at the start of the working day, many people are stuck in elevators. In some places, it takes hours to free them. People who happen to be in an elevator with a built-in battery are lucky. They will still go to the next floor even in case of power failure.

Laptops and mobile devices still work, but only as long as the battery lasts. Charging is only possible with a power bank. Some 36,000 kilometers of power cables have been laid in Berlin alone, and 28,000 in Hamburg. But now, energy flows only where there are emergency generators.

Cell phone, e-mail: Nothing works anymore

The mobile network still works for about half an hour. But it is hopelessly overloaded after just a few minutes. Everywhere people are hurriedly trying to call their loved ones. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., nothing works anymore.

Emails don’t help either. The internet also stops working. Only the car radio or battery-powered radios still have reception. The voices of the speakers urge people to remain calm. People run into the street to find out how far the power outage extends.

The world of cashless payment is convenient, but fatal in the case of a power outage. Most people barely have a hundred euros in cash in their wallets that morning. Queues quickly form in front of the ATMs, but they dissolve just as quickly because there is no more money. Digital payment and electronic cash register systems don’t work either. Those who still have coins and bills at home have an advantage.

In the evening, the affected regions are ghostly silent and dark. In the big cities, neon signs no longer flash. It is not only landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate that are completely in the dark. Whole cities are swallowed by the night. In the windows of apartments and houses one sees only the glimmer of candlelight and flickering flashlights. At night, temperatures drop below freezing.

Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (3)

Day 2

The water supply becomes a problem. Without electricity, water stops flowing through the pipes after just a few hours, both in private households and in public buildings. For those who didn’t refill empty bottles and containers in time, or have a sufficient supply of bottled drinks at home, things are now getting difficult. Without pumping stations, sewage treatment plants do not function. The escaping wastewater causes environmental damage in many places. It also starts to smell in the bathrooms. Healthy people can survive about three days without drinking water. But for the elderly, children and anyone who is ill, the situation becomes serious much sooner.

The federal government’s disaster alarm is now triggered by the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance. Most district councils and the mayors of independent cities have already declared an emergency for their regions. The police inform the population via loudspeakers. They recommend staying home and staying inside.

A first vigilante group

If you don’t have a full tank of gas in your car, you won’t get far. No more fuel comes out of the pumps. Shell, for example, says emergency generators and manual pumps are currently not part of the standard equipment at gas stations. There are only a few stations with emergency power, but these are reserved for police, firefighters and ambulances. Since many people are still attempting to fill up their tanks, the operators now receive police protection.

«Rescue services and emergency forces would have considerable difficulties fulfilling their tasks, such as caring for and transporting the injured or fighting fires,» predicts the report by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag.

That is accurate. Chaos reigns on the roads of the regions without electricity. The lack of lighting has caused countless accidents. And because the mobile network is dead, no one can inform the emergency services. The police try to keep at least a rough overview with helicopters from the air, but in the end they can only send the ambulances to the biggest pileups.

In the evening, about a hundred mostly young men gather in the marketplace of the Hanseatic city of Wismar in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. They carry flashlights and thermos flasks, some also have baseball bats. It’s one of the first vigilante groups formed here to patrol the city after dark and prevent break-ins. The local police, who are completely overwhelmed, let them have their way.

Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (4)

Day 3

At least January offers one advantage: The food that in summer would have spoiled no later than the third day can be cooled on the balcony or in a bag hanging out the window. Nevertheless, on the third day of the blackout, panic is setting in for many people. Very few have enough food and especially drinking water in stock.

Marc Elsberg, author of the bestselling thriller «Blackout» says in an interview: «The preparations people should make are similar to those for a simple two-week camping vacation.» The Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance gets specific in its «Guidebook for Emergency Preparedness and Correct Action in Emergency Situations.» Every citizen should have, among other things, two liters of water per day per person and a food supply for 10 days, in addition to candles, flashlights and any necessary medicines.

The few supermarkets whose operators secured an emergency power supply have now sold out of almost everything. Since the cash registers do not work, cash is needed to pay. Fresh goods that do not need to be cooked were already out of stock by the end of the first day, and in the meantime the other shelves are also empty, apart from cleaning products and spices.

Hospitals with police protection

All hell is breaking loose in the clinics. It is true that all larger hospitals in Germany have an emergency power supply that will still function on the third day; emergency operations mainly include the emergency room, intensive care units and surgical areas. But at many smaller sites, patients can no longer be cared for; the fuel for the emergency generators is empty and new supplies have not yet arrived. Ambulances from other states transfer the seriously ill to other parts of the country not affected by the blackout, but only with considerable difficulty.

Those injured in traffic and household accidents who are able to do so try to get to one of the major hospitals on their own. But the crowds there are now so large that the police have to guard the entrances and turn people away.

And the military? «A large-scale and prolonged power outage» would pose «major challenges» to the Bundeswehr, according to a Defense Ministry statement issued last year. This, too, turns out to be accurate. The soldiers have emergency generators and fuel, but neither is nearly enough to power the many health care facilities, including those for the elderly.

It is very cold in the apartments between Kiel, Magdeburg and Dresden. Due to the sub-zero temperatures at night, even the last bit of warmth has now escaped from the apartments. People with fireplaces or tiled stoves and sufficient fuel are at an advantage. They can at least heat individual rooms. Others don as many layers of clothing as they can and sleep under multiple blankets.

If people lack something, they try to swap: Cash for canned soups, ibuprofen for toilet paper, diapers for cat food.

Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (5)

Day 4

A tragedy occurred overnight in a large student dormitory in Dresden. About two dozen residents had gathered in the community room that evening and wanted to generate some warmth. They fired up the grill that someone had brought from home. They turned off the battery-powered smoke detector to avoid alerting the fire department. All the windows were locked. Presumably, everyone had already lost consciousness when the grill started the fire. It is not the only story of this kind.

Accidents are increasing in apartment buildings and homes. Injuries that would be harmless under normal circ*mstances become increasingly dangerous if left untreated. Retirees who fall lie undetected for days and die of thirst.

Outside life has also become risky, especially in the evening and at night. While the first few days were largely peaceful, riots and looting are now taking place in many cities. The police are overworked and, when they come, they arrive too late.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

After nearly a hundred hours of power outage, whether or not an end is in sight is crucial to the population’s psychological response. If the cause of the blackout can be clarified and the power utilities begin to ramp up the networks, the «collapse of society» warned of by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag can still be prevented.

Thriller author Elsberg is more optimistic in conversation than in his book. He says: «We know from all crisis situations in civilized nations that as long as they are not desperate, people don’t fight, they help each other.»

A good conclusion.

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Blackout Germany: What happens when millions lose power for days (2024)

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