A five-hour power cut: a disaster for a big city like Hamburg. Such an event is unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

By Philipp Sümmermann

The supermarket is suddenly plunged into darkness. The only light comes from the emergency lighting by the exits. The conveyor belt at the check-out halts, the radio dies – everything stops. Marie, 40, sits at the till where she has worked for ten years. She is not easily ruffled. The familiar whirr of the air conditioning and beep of the scanners are no longer to be heard, and only now that it is so quiet does Marie realise how noisy it usually is. She has only experienced a power cut at the supermarket once before, and that was the result of a blown fuse. She reassures customers waiting in the queue: “I’m sure it will come back on in a minute.”

At the cargo port a few kilometres south, cars and forklift trucks are still driving around. Peter’s crane, however, has stopped mid-manoeuvre. “Shit,” he mutters – a twelve-metre-long container hovers on his crane’s hook inches above a truck. Just half an hour after his shift started, the power has cut out. He will have to make up for the lost time, and he has a lot to do today. “It will only be a brief pause,” thinks Peter, and picks up the radio to contact head office.

At Veddel, two stops away from the central station, the S-Bahn has ground to a halt in the middle of a bridge. Johannes, 25, is returning home from university. He is on the phone to a friend. He is not concerned that the train has stopped. “Another technical problem,” he thinks. It doesn’t even occur to him that there might be a power cut.

Two hours later, and the supermarket manager has decided to close the shop. Without functioning barcode scanners and tills, Marie can’t work anyway, so she gets the evening off. She has to tell the customers to come back tomorrow, although most of them have already gone, leaving their half-filled shopping trolleys in the aisles. She locks up the shop in semi-darkness, six hours earlier than usual, feeling a sense of relief at not having to deal with the frustrated customers anymore.

At the same time, Peter is also packing up his things. Continuing to work would be pointless as port operations have ceased, and with the cranes out of action Peter can’t move the heavy shipping containers. He gets into his car and drives to the gate, where a long queue of trucks has built up. Frustrated drivers stand on the road, speaking loudly into their phones. They are on a tight schedule and should have set off a long time ago. On the way home, Peter advances slowly and cautiously over the junctions as all traffic lights are out. Several passers-by congregate on the side of the road to tend to an injured motorcyclist – just one of many accidents.

Meanwhile, on the S-Bahn, a 20-year-old woman who has been listening to the radio tells Johannes that the power is still down. He recognises her from uni but doesn’t know her name. They have never spoken before as Johannes has never dared to approach her. “I’m Lea by the way,” she says. By now all passengers have left the train and climbed down the embankment beside the bridge. Lea also has to get to the city centre, so they set off on the long walk together.

The shopping centre car park is dark, illuminated only by weak emergency lighting. Marie’s footsteps echo through the empty space. She is happy to have the evening off, but at the same time it is rather spooky to be alone in the dark car park. When she reaches the exit, she finds that the barrier has been broken off.

Outside, Peter sits in a traffic jam. Many of the drivers are on their way home from work or are picking someone up. Horns honk and sirens blare. In his rear mirror, Peter sees the blue flashing lights of two approaching fire engines, weaving their way through the traffic. The radio presenter asks everybody to remain calm.

The petrol indicator in Marie’s car is flashing, telling her it’s almost empty. The next petrol station is 100 metres away, but it will be shut as the petrol pumps can’t work without electricity. “Hopefully I have enough to get home,” thinks Marie.

Johannes and Lea have almost reached the city centre.The road has been long, but during their walk they have got to know one another. Street lamps flicker – the power is back on.

According to Germany’s Federal Network Agency, the electricity grid is strained but manageable. Hamburg lies in a particularly vulnerable region for power failures – a complete blackout such as the one described above is unlikely, but it could happen. To be on the safe side, grid operators have developed emergency action response plans to be implemented in the event of a stalled electricity supply.


BLACKOUT (English subtitles)

Experts say that renewable and conventionally sourced energies are not yet interacting as well as they should. Is our energy supply at risk? Philipp Sümmermann investigates whether power cuts are on the horizon.