Patrick Vranckx, a bakery owner in Temploux, Belgium – 50 miles southeast of Brussels – is panicking. His boulangerie Pâtisserie Vranckx, which sells hand-moulded breads and pastries to about 400 customers a day, is already struggling to keep up with skyrocketing energy costs, and winter promises even greater pain.
“We won’t be able to last many more months,” he told Yahoo News, noting that electricity prices have quadrupled over the past year.
With the supply of Russian natural gas, which accounted for 40% of Europe’s supply last year, now just a trickle, OPEC oil production, hydroelectric power crippled by this summer’s drought, renewable electricity not fully operational, and With temperatures already falling as winter approaches, Europe braces itself for the worst energy crisis the continent has ever seen. Government officials and energy agencies are warning of possible power outages when the cold sets in. Energy could even be rationed as part of “robust demand-reduction measures,” Thorfinn Stainforth, an analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, told Yahoo News, adding that industrial customers are likely to be hit first.
Johan Lilliestam, head of the Energiewende group at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, has dubbed the dire situation “Europe’s energy drama” and says every day seems to deliver a new cliffhanger. Two weeks ago, it was the alleged sabotage of the submerged Nord Stream pipelines that shut them down for good, sparking panic in Europe over the safety of other gas pipelines amid an energy standoff with Russia. Last Thursday, as the 27-member European Union finalized its sanctions on Russian oil, OPEC+ announced it had reached an agreement with Moscow to cut oil production, a move some believe could accelerate inflation .
“I don’t think the announcement will affect supply much, but it could affect prices,” Lilliestam told Yahoo News, noting that the deal went “despite strong calls from the West not to take any action that would.” could increase the price of oil further”.
In France, which is typically an electricity exporter to its western European neighbors, the state electricity agency is warning of possible shutdowns, thanks in part to its investments in nuclear power. Half of the country’s nuclear fleet of 56 reactors is down due to corrosion and maintenance, Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, a research associate at the Jacques Delors Energy Center, told Yahoo News. The reduced electricity production is of particular concern, he said, given the French’s reliance on electricity for heating. In addition, oil workers’ wage strikes have sharply reduced France’s petrol stocks, as seen in long lines at petrol stations this weekend, with pumps running a third dry.
Everything from coal to wood is in short supply across the continent. Tom Goethals, who normally supplies strings of firewood from Belarus and Russia to 30 pizzerias and 300 customers in Brussels, had to switch to a French supplier due to shortages and high transport costs. Demand has now gone through the roof.
“People are afraid that they don’t have heating or that it’s too expensive to use it,” Goethals said, adding that some Belgian suppliers already run out of wood for the season and that most suppliers’ prices have changed due to the shipping costs have doubled.
Despite accelerated plans for the transition to renewable energy sources following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union remains dependent on natural gas, which powers much of it industrial production, power generation and heat demand, especially in industrialized countries like Germany. To fill the gap, the EU is forced to import expensive liquefied natural gas from Qatar and the US, a move that has pushed electricity and heat prices to all-time highs. Norway is now Europe’s main supplier of gas through its pipelines but does not do business with its neighbors, prompting accusations of war usury.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who plans to confront gas suppliers over their prices, told business leaders in Paris last week: “In a spirit of great friendship, we will say to our American and Norwegian friends, ‘You guys are great, you supply us with energy and gas , but one thing that can’t go on for too long is we’re paying four times what you’re selling your industry,” Bloomberg reported. He added, “That’s not exactly what friendship means.”
With no sign of the crisis easing anytime soon, European governments are trying to take action to protect consumers and save energy. Last week, the EU’s executive, the European Commission, imposed a windfall tax on fossil fuel producers, capped electricity prices for most utilities and required households to cut electricity demand by at least 5% during peak periods. In its quarterly report, the Paris-based International Energy Agency, noting that Europe “faces a winter of unprecedented supply insecurity because of Russia’s behavior,” warned that “a complete shutdown of Russian pipeline flows to the European Union cannot be ruled out,” and urged consumers to cut natural gas consumption by 13% by turning down thermostats and water heaters.
Europe’s natural gas storage caverns are almost 90% full, but these reserves will only last for three months and future gas supplies appear uncertain, all the more so as gas price caps may come into force. In much of the continent, highly polluting coal-fired power plants that were scheduled to be shut down are back in operation, shut down nuclear power plants are being restarted, fracking is being discussed, new gas pipelines are being proposed and Europeans are being urged not to heat their homes to more than 19° Celsius, 66° Fahrenheit, although some shops 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 fallen sharply in recent weeks.
The difference between energy prices in Europe and the United States is wide, with the average western European paying 41 cents per kilowatt-hour while American households pay around 15 cents. This inequality hits the citizens of Europe hard.
“Vulnerable people are really being squeezed now,” Stainforth said.
Lilliestam also worries about how the manufacturing sector will deal with unprecedented energy prices. “How much loss can the industry take?” he asked. “How long can they carry these prizes? How long can you just shut down production and then 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 overstated how much we really need – and there is so much that could be done with renewable energy right now, the prices are so cheap,” Stainforth said, adding, “There’s no reason why.” only large amounts of renewable energy cannot now be deployed across the European Union to ensure that in two, three, five, ten years we are in a good position, both in terms of climate and in terms of energy security .” Had Europe moved faster earlier, he remarked: “We wouldn’t have these problems with the wild swings in consumer prices and industrial prices and problems with energy security.”