As winter approaches, Europe scrambles to prepare for energy shortages

Patrick Vranckx, owner of a bakery in Temploux, Belgium – 80 km southeast of Brussels – is panicked. His Boulangerie Pâtisserie Vranckx, which sells hand-moulded bread and pastries to around 400 customers every day, is already struggling to cope with soaring energy costs, and winter promises even more pain.

“We won’t be able to hold out for several more months,” he told Yahoo News, noting that electricity prices have quadrupled over the past year.

With the delivery of Russian natural gas, which provided 40% of Europe’s supplies last year, now dwindling to a trickle, OPEC slashing oil production, hydropower crippled by this summer’s drought, With renewable electricity not fully in effect and temperatures already dropping as winter approaches, Europe is preparing for the worst energy crisis the continent has ever seen. Government officials and energy agencies are warning of possible power outages as the cold sets in. that industrial customers are likely to be the first affected.

Boulangerie Pâtisserie Vranckx in Temploux, Belgium, is already feeling the pinch of energy. (via Facebook)

Johan Lilliestam, who heads the energy transitions group at the German Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, dubbed the dire situation “Europe’s energy drama”, and said every day seems deliver a new cliffhanger. Two weeks ago it was the alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream undersea pipelines, which shut them down for good and sparked European panic over the safety of other gas pipelines amid an energy standoff with Russia. Last Thursday, as the 27-member European Union finalized its sanctions against Russian oil, OPEC+ announced that it had reached an agreement with Moscow to cut oil production, a decision that some say could accelerate inflation.

“I don’t think the announcement will greatly affect supply, but it could affect prices,” Lilliestam told Yahoo News, while noting that the deal came “despite strong calls from the West not to not take any action that could further increase oil prices.”

In France, normally an exporter of electricity to its neighbors in Western Europe, partly thanks to its investments in nuclear power, the national electricity agency warns of possible cuts. Half of the country’s 56-reactor nuclear fleet is down, due to corrosion and maintenance, Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, a researcher at the Jacques Delors Energy Center, told Yahoo News. The drop in electricity production is particularly worrying, he said, since the French depend on electricity for heating. In addition, wage strikes by oil workers have sharply reduced the French supply of gasoline, as evidenced this weekend by the long queues at stations, a third of whose pumps have run dry.

French trade unionists march down a palm-lined street, waving crimson flags and a matching banner.

French CGT union workers on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice during a nationwide day of strikes and protests to press for government measures to tackle inflation, workers’ rights and pension reforms, in Nice, France, September 29. The banner reads ‘Raise wages, it’s urgent, possible and necessary.’ (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Across the continent, everything from coal to wood is in short supply. Tom Goethals, who normally delivers cords of firewood grown in Belarus and Russia to 30 pizzerias and 300 customers in Brussels, had to turn to a French supplier due to shortages and high transport costs. Demand, meanwhile, has exploded.

“People are afraid that they won’t have heating or that it will be too expensive to use,” Goethals said, adding that some Belgian suppliers already had no wood left for the season and most suppliers’ prices had dropped. doubled due to shipping costs.

Despite accelerated plans to transition to renewable energy sources following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union remains dependent on natural gas, which powers much industrial production, electricity production and heating needs, particularly in industrial countries such as Germany. To fill the gap, the EU is forced to import expensive liquefied natural gas from Qatar and the United States, a move that has driven electricity and heating prices to unprecedented levels. Norway is now Europe’s main gas supplier through its pipelines, but is not cutting any deals to its neighbours, leading to accusations of war profiteering.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who plans to confront gas suppliers over their prices, told business leaders in Paris last week that “In the spirit of great friendship, we will say to our American and Norwegian friends: ‘You you’re great, you supply us with power and gas, but one thing that can’t last too long is that we pay four times the price you sell to your industry,” Bloomberg reported. He added: “That’s not exactly the meaning of friendship.”

French President Emmanuel Macron clenches both fists.

French President Emmanuel Macron in Prague, Czech Republic, for the European Political Community summit on October 7. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

With no signs of an immediate easing of the crisis, European governments are trying to put in place measures to protect consumers and save energy. Last week, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, imposed a windfall tax on fossil fuel producers, capped electricity prices for most utilities and called on households to cut at least 5% electricity demand during peak consumption periods. In its quarterly report, the Paris-based International Energy Agency, noting that Europe is facing “an unprecedented winter of supply uncertainty due to the behavior of Russia”, warned that ” a complete stoppage of Russian gas pipeline flows to the European Union cannot be ruled out.” and urged consumers to reduce their natural gas consumption by 13% by turning down thermostats and water heaters.

Natural gas storage caverns in Europe are nearly 90% full, but those reserves are only enough for three months, and future gas supplies look uncertain, especially as caps on gas prices could come in in force. Across much of the continent, heavily polluting coal-fired power stations that were supposed to be decommissioned are working again, nuclear power stations that had been shut down are restarting, fracking is being discussed, new gas pipelines are being proposed and Europeans are being urged to heat their home to a maximum temperature of 19° Celsius, 66° Fahrenheit, although some stores and offices do not exceed 17°C (62°F).

“Most people bought extra blankets and [sweaters]and they delay turning on their heating until the cold really sets in,” said Andy Hughes, a property manager who lives in Cirencester, England, where nighttime temperatures have dropped sharply in recent weeks.

Workers in white suits and helmets inside a large power plant, seen from above.

Workers restart the installations of the Emile-Huchet thermal power station, a coal-fired power station and a combined gas-fired power station, in Saint-Avold and Carling, in eastern France, on September 12. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

The difference between energy prices in Europe and the United States is striking, with the average Western European paying 41 cents per kilowatt hour while American households pay around 15 cents. This disparity hits ordinary citizens in Europe hard.

“Vulnerable people are in a real rush now,” Stainforth said.

Lilliestam is also worried about how the manufacturing sector will cope with unprecedented energy prices. “How much loss can the industry suffer? ” He asked. “How long can they sustain these prices? How long can you just shut down production and still come back?”

While the crisis has confirmed the need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, it has also made it clear that it will not happen fast enough to meet Europe’s energy needs this winter.

“It cannot be overemphasized how much we really need – and there is so much that could be done with renewable energy now, the prices are so advantageous,” Stainforth said, adding: “There is there is no reason why large amounts of renewable energy cannot be deployed across the European Union now, to ensure that we will be in a good position in two, three, five, ten years, both in terms of but also in terms of energy security. If Europe had moved faster earlier, he noted, “we wouldn’t have these problems with the wild swings in consumer prices and industrial prices , and energy security issues”.

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