Lights out, ovens off: Europe preps for winter energy crisis

FRANKFURT: As Europe enters winter amid the energy crisis, offices are getting colder and colder. The statues and historic buildings are about to go dark. Bakers who can’t afford to heat up their ovens are talking about giving up, while fruit and vegetable growers face leaving their greenhouses standing still.
In poorer Eastern Europe, people are hoarding firewood, while in richer Germany, the wait for an energy-efficient heat pump can take half a year. And businesses don’t know how much more they can cut.
“We can’t turn off the lights and make customers sit in the dark,” said Richard Kovacs, business development manager for Hungarian burger chain Zing Burger. Restaurants have been running ovens less than necessary and using motion detectors to turn off lights in their warehouses, with some facing a 750% increase in electricity bills since the start of the year.
With high costs and tight energy supplies, Europe is rolling out bailouts and plans to shake up electricity and natural gas markets as it prepares for increased energy use. in this winter. The question is whether it will be enough to avoid government rationing and prolonged power outages after Russia cut the amount of natural gas needed to heat homes, run factories and generate electricity. 1/10 of what it was before the invasion of Ukraine or not.
Europe’s reliance on Russian energy has turned the war into an economic and energy crisis, with prices soaring to record highs in recent months and fluctuating wildly.
In response, governments have been working hard to find new and energy-efficient supplies, with gas storage facilities now 86% full ahead of the winter heating season – reaching the 80% target by September. 11. They have pledged to use 15% lower gas, which means the Eiffel Tower will go dark more than an hour earlier than usual while shops and buildings turn off their lights at night or cool down.
Europe’s ability to weather winter may ultimately depend on how cold it is and what happens in China. Shutdown efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 have shut down much of China’s economy and mean less competition for scarce energy supplies.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this month that preparing early means Europe’s largest economy “is now in a position where we can bravely and courageously enter this winter where the country We’ll get through this.”
“Nobody could have said that three, four, five months ago, or at the beginning of this year,” he added.
Even with gas available this winter, high prices have pushed people and businesses to use less and forced some energy-intensive factories like glass factories to close.
It is also a decision facing Dutch fruit and vegetable growers, who are key to Europe’s winter food supply: close greenhouses or incur losses after gas and lamp heating costs. electricity spiked.
Bosch Growers, the company that grows green peppers and blackberries, installed additional insulation, idling a greenhouse and experimented with lower temperatures. Cost? Smaller yields, raspberries take longer to ripen and are more likely to work in red to maintain customer relationships even in lower quantities.
“We want to stay in the market, without damaging the reputation we have developed over the years,” Wouter van den Bosch, the sixth generation of his family to help run the business. “We’re in survival mode.”
Kovacs, van den Bosch growers and bakers like Andreas Schmitt of Frankfurt, Germany, are faced with the hard reality that conservation only goes so far.
Schmitt is heating fewer ovens at its 25 Cafe Ernst bakeries, running them longer to save on startup energy, narrowing down its pastry selection to make sure the ovens run full, and storing less dough to save money. cutting cooling costs. That could result in 5-10% savings on an energy bill that is expected to grow from 300,000 euros a year to 1.1 million next year.
“It’s not going to change the world,” he said. Most of his expenses are “the energy required to knead the dough into bread and that is a certain amount of energy”
Schmitt, head of the local baker’s union, said some small bakeries are giving up. Government help will be key in the short term, he said, while the longer term solution involves reforming energy markets.
Europe is targeting both, although the necessary spending may not be sustainable. According to an analysis from Brussels-based consultancy Bruegel, countries have allocated 500 billion euros to reduce high utility bills since September 2021, and they are giving aid to companies that cannot afford it. buy gas to fulfill their contracts.
Governments have arranged for additional gas supplies from pipelines running to Norway and Azerbaijan and increased purchases of expensive liquefied natural gas shipped by ocean liner, much of it from the United States.
At the same time, the EU is considering drastic interventions such as taxing energy companies’ wind profits and revamping the electricity market so that the cost of natural gas plays less of a role in the economy. determine the price of electricity.
But as countries scramble to replace Russia’s fossil fuels and even reactivate polluting coal-fired power plants, environmentalists and the EU itself argue that renewables are the long-term way out. .
Neighbors in Madrid looking to cut electricity costs and support the energy transition installed solar panels this month to power their housing development after years of work. .
Neighbor Manuel Ruiz said: “I have dramatically reduced my gas consumption by 40%, with very little use of three strategically placed radiators in the house.
Governments have rejected Russia as an energy supplier, but the President Vladimir Putin still has leverage, analysts say. Some Russian gas is still flowing, and a difficult winter could undermine public support for Ukraine in some countries. There have been protests in places like the Czech Republic and Belgium.
“The market is tight and every molecule counts,” said Agata Loskot-Strachota, senior fellow in energy policy at the Center for Oriental Studies in Warsaw. “This is leverage Putin still has – that Europe will have to face disillusioned or impoverished societies. ”
In Bulgaria, the poorest of the EU’s 27 members, rising energy costs force families to cut spending before winter to ensure they can afford food and medicine.
According to the EU’s statistics office Eurostat, more than a quarter of 7 million people cannot afford to heat their homes, the highest in the 27-nation bloc due to poorly insulated buildings and low incomes. Nearly half of households use firewood in the winter as the cheapest and most accessible fuel, but soaring demand and galloping inflation have kept prices above last year’s levels.
In the capital Sofia, where nearly half a million households have heating provided by central factories, many have looked for other options after the announcement of a 40% price increase.
Grigor Iliev, a 68-year-old retired accountant, and his wife have decided to cancel the central heating system and purchase a combined air-conditioning heating unit for their two-room apartment.
“It’s an expensive device, but in the long run we’ll get our investment back,” he said.
Meanwhile, businesses are trying to stay strong without alienating customers. Klara Aurell, owner of two restaurants in Prague, says she does all she can to save energy.
“We use LED bulbs, turn off the lights during the day, heat only when it gets really cold, and we use it sparingly,” she said. “We also take measures to conserve water and use energy-efficient appliances. We can hardly do anything else. The only thing left is to raise the price. It is like that”.
The gourmet Babushka Artisanal bakery in an affluent district of Budapest had to raise its prices by 10%. The bakery uses less air conditioning despite the hottest Hungarian summer on record and is making sure the oven doesn’t work without bread inside.
While it has enough traffic to stay afloat during this time, further increases in energy costs could threaten its viability, owner Eszter Roboz said.
“The doubling of energy costs still aligns with our business and our calculations,” she said. ”

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