A Finnish family emerges from their wood-heated sauna in Siikajoki, Finland, which has urged families to bathe together to save energy, Oct 28, 2022. [Vesa Laitinen/The New York Times]
A flotilla of tankers carrying liquefied natural gas have been parked in a maritime traffic jam off the coast of Spain in recent days, waiting to unload their precious cargo for Europe’s power grid. In Finland, where sweltering sauna baths are a national pastime, the government is urging friends and families to take saunas together to save energy.
Both efforts are emblematic of the measures Europe is taking to increase energy supplies and conserve fuel before a winter without Russian gas.
The tactic by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to weaponize energy against countries supporting Ukraine has produced a startling transformation in how Europe generates and saves power. Countries are banding together to buy, borrow and build additional power supplies, while pushing out major conservation programs that recall the response to the 1970s oil crisis.
Underground storage sites around the continent have been fully stocked with emergency gas supplies. Nuclear power plants slated for closure in Germany will stay open. From France to Sweden, thermostats are being lowered to just 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit). Slovakia is even urging people to limit showers to two minutes.
As November approaches, the all-hands-on-deck effort has some analysts more hopeful than they’ve been in months that Europe can make it to spring without energy rationing or blackouts, while speeding up its energy independence.
The steps European nations have taken “are remarkable and will more likely than not transform the energy landscape,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. “Europe will manage to completely decouple from Russia, something that was previously seen as impossible.”
Still, the pivot is coming at a high cost, and Europe’s energy security could be undermined in the coming months.
While Europe has adjusted to Russia’s severe cutbacks in gas exports – Russia now provides less than 10% of Europe’s natural gas, from 45% of Europe’s supply before the war – prices for gas remain historically high, forcing shutdowns at energy-intensive businesses, including the production of steel, chemical and glass. Companies are furloughing workers. Governments are issuing more debt to shield households and businesses from pain. There are growing projections that the energy crisis will tilt Europe into a recession next year.
Ships laden with gas off the Spanish coast are waiting because Europe, which went on a buying spree, has put so much gas into reserve that there’s no longer room to store the incoming fuel. Europe still gets a small supply – around 7% – of natural gas from Russia through pipelines running beneath Ukraine. If that flow is severed, several countries will be in a bind.
And some Europeans may decide that they aren’t so willing after all to make personal sacrifices for Ukraine as household energy bills spiral higher. Street protests against the soaring cost of living have broken out in Paris, Prague and elsewhere, chipping away at Europe’s united front for sanctions against Russia.
Building up supplies
The work being done to build up energy supplies – securing liquefied natural gas contracts, prolonging nuclear reactors and restarting coal-fired plants – are major steps in ensuring Europe’s power grids stay on.
The efforts represent a swift turn away from Russia and include deals to build out pipelines, drill for gas on European soil and construct more platforms to receive natural gas shipments from far-off destinations. While Europe’s share of renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, is growing, natural gas still powers most homes and businesses, so a steady supply now is vital.
A concerted effort since the spring has helped European nations fill most of their gas reserves – enough to provide around three months of power – despite dwindling Russian flows. Unseasonably warm weather in Europe is delaying the need for early heating, so the stock may last longer than expected.
The consulting group Rystad Energy has calculated that Europe has enough gas stored to survive this winter unless it gets very cold, while natural gas prices have fallen to their lowest levels since June.
“The risk of blackouts or major shortages of gas is, for now, a very remote prospect,” added Tagliapietra.
But other problems could emerge. Europe may face an even tougher winter next year as natural gas stocks are used up and as new supplies to replace Russian gas, including increased shipments from the United States or Qatar, are slow to come online, the International Energy Agency said in its annual World Energy Outlook, released last week.
Europe’s activity appears to be accelerating a global transition toward cleaner technologies, the IEA added, as countries respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by embracing hydrogen fuels, electric vehicles, heat pumps and other green energies.
But in the short term, countries will be burning more fossil fuels in response to the natural gas shortages.
Greece is extending the operation of all its brown coal-fired or lignite power plants to 2028 and increasing coal production by 50%. Several countries have lifted limits on coal-fired power plants, including the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. Even France, once Europe’s biggest nuclear energy provider, is reverting to coal power in some areas as a variety of unexpected problems, including droughts that have made it difficult to cool reactors and aging infrastructure, has left half of its nuclear plants offline.
Coal consumption surged in the first half of the year by 10% and is expected to rise by another 7% next year, the IEA said.
Countries including Denmark, Britain and Hungary are also drilling for more natural gas in their own backyards, despite opposition from environmental groups. The Netherlands is delaying the closing of its enormous gas fields in Groningen, which had been slated to be sealed because of earthquakes triggered by the extraction of the fuel.
Eleven countries, including Germany, Finland and Estonia, are now building or expanding a total of 18 offshore terminals to process liquid gas shipped in from other countries. Other projects in Latvia and Lithuania are under consideration.
Nuclear power is winning new support in countries that had previously decided to abandon it, including Germany and Belgium. Finland is planning to extend the lifetime of one reactor, while Poland and Romania plan to build new nuclear power plants.
Living at 19 degrees
Public awareness campaigns are unfolding across Europe to encourage households and businesses to save energy – the second leg of the significant pivot away from dependence on Russian gas. The plans, based on a European Commission blueprint, are voluntary and rely on buy-ins from individuals and businesses whose utility bills may be subsidized by their governments.
Energy use dropped in September in several countries, although it is hard to know for sure if the cause was balmy weather, high prices or voluntary conservation efforts inspired by a sense of civic duty. But there are signs that businesses, organizations and the public are responding. In Sweden, for example, the Lund diocese said it planned to partially or fully close 150 out of 540 churches this winter to conserve energy.
Germany and France have issued sweeping guidance, which includes lowering heating in all homes, businesses and public buildings, using appliances at off-peak hours and unplugging electronic devices when not in use.
Other countries are even more encyclopedic: Denmark wants households to shun dryers and use clotheslines. Slovakia is urging citizens to use microwaves instead of stoves and brush their teeth with a single glass of water.
The Finnish government introduced a “Down a degree” campaign to get over 95% of households to save energy. The campaign promotes using the stairs over the elevator, and biking or taking public transit to work.
And in a country where there are 3 million saunas for 5.5 million people, the campaign urged people to take fewer, shorter and cooler heat baths by turning down the temperature to 185 degrees from 212. It also encouraged people – without offering advice on whether or not to stick with the customary nudity – to take saunas with others instead of alone.
Two weeks into the campaign, 723 companies, individuals and organizations had signed up as “campaign partners” and listed their energy-saving techniques on the website. “Short showers,” wrote one homeowner; another announced: “18 solar panels coming to the roof in October.”
“In the coming winter, efforts to save electricity and schedule the consumption of electricity may be the key to avoiding electricity shortages,” Fingrad, the main grid operator, said.
Businesses are being asked to do even more, and most governments have set targets for retailers, manufacturers and offices to find ways to ratchet down their energy use by at least 10% in the coming months.
Governments, themselves huge users of energy, are reducing heating, curbing streetlight use and closing municipal swimming pools. In France, where the state operates a third of all buildings, the government plans to cut energy use by two terawatt-hours, the amount used by a midsize city.
Whether the campaigns succeed is far from clear, said Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a European think tank. Because the recommendations are voluntary, there may be little incentive for people to follow suit – especially if governments are subsidizing energy bills.
In countries like Germany, where skyrocketing gas prices have begun to hit consumers, “that is useful in getting them to lower their energy use,” he said. But in countries that are funding part of the bill, “there is zero incentive to save on energy,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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