Lights Out in Berlin: The Threat of a Winter Without Gas
This past summer, streets across Europe went dark as night fell. From the imposing glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin to the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, monuments that normally welcome hordes of tourists well into the night have turned off their lights as governments across the continent scramble to save energy in the worst European energy crisis in more than four decades.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of the year destabilized the entire European energy sector within only a few months. Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to the rest of Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which passes from Saint Petersburg to northeastern Germany under the Baltic sea. Many countries are heavily reliant on Russian energy, which accounts for around 40% of the EU’s supply (Horton & Palumbo, 2022). Following Russia’s attack in February, the Western world retaliated with sanctions, such as the prohibition of the export of electronic and manufacturing goods to Russia (Global Affairs Canada, 2022), the limitation of access to funds from Russian banks, and the banning of imports of Russian coal and oil. One notable absence from the EU’s extensive list of sanctions was the banning of natural gas imports, as the continent is far too reliant on it to power factories and heat homes (“What are the sanctions on Russia,” 2022).
This very weakness was exploited in retaliation. In June, Russia cut the delivery of natural gas through Nord Stream 1 down from 170 cubic meters of gas per day to only 40 cubic meters per day—a 70% reduction. Then, in July, it was cut down once again to only 20 cubic meters per day after a 10-day complete shutdown. Russia attributed the shutdown to maintenance procedures, but rumours of political warfare in response to the economic sanctions quickly began to swirl in Europe. On September 1st 2022, delivery of natural gas through Nord Stream 1 was completely halted for an indefinite duration, this time due to an alleged leak, worsening the shortages continent-wide (“Nord Stream 1,” 2022).
The shortage was also exacerbated over the summer by a grueling heat wave, causing energy prices to explode as the need for air conditioning superseded the need to conserve energy for the colder months. This was further compounded by aging power grids in many parts of Europe, making it harder for the existing power to reach its destination (Bloomberg Markets and Finance, 2022). These factors all coalesced into a looming energy crisis as European nations began scrambling to make up for the shortages and rising prices—termed the “energy gap”—by any means possible, especially given that winter is fast approaching.
The attempts by European nations to address the gap have ranged dramatically in scope, with some reliant on individual citizens to alter their energy consumption habits and others aiming to address the technological or legal controls on energy quantity and price. Many countries have sought out alternative sources to replace Russian gas. France, for instance, considered reviving the MidCat natural gas pipeline, an interconnection project from the Iberian Peninsula to central Europe that was originally cancelled in 2017 (“France plans pipeline,” 2022). The idea had fierce support from Spain, Portugal, and Germany, but was ultimately deemed incapable of resolving the energy crisis given the time that would be needed to implement it and the poor cost-benefit ratio for France (Messad, 2022).
Alternative types of energy have also been considered, with some countries going so far as to consider a return to coal; Germany approved a plan in July to allow coal-fired power plants to resume operations if deemed necessary. Despite its commitment to transition away from fossil fuels as part of its climate plan, Germany and many other nations have been left with effectively no other option (Razavi, 2022). Aside from the controversy involved in building new pipelines and revitalizing the coal industry in the face of climate change commitments, an additional, key problem still remains in that they cannot be implemented nearly fast enough to curtail the rapidly escalating crisis (“Nord Stream 1,” 2022).
In the meantime, unprecedented energy rationing measures have been put in place in an attempt to bring down consumption amongst EU members following a resolution for its member states to cut their energy use by 15% before winter. Germany, as Europe’s largest importer of Russian gas, is a prime example: it reduced the heating in public pools, snuffed the lights of several tourist attractions at night, and discouraged the use of air conditioning in order to conserve power for winter. In the Netherlands, the government has adopted a campaign dubbed “Flip the Switch,” which encourages citizens to take sub-five-minute showers and air-dry laundry. In Spain, even more stringent measures have been adopted, with strict guidelines regarding the minimum and maximum temperatures stores can be maintained at in the summer and winter respectively (Leicester, 2022).
Despite the massive, coordinated efforts to conserve energy, however, energy bills have continued to surge, prompting a cost of living crisis that is only bound to get worse with the approach of winter. As of mid-summer, the price of European gas has soared over 550% (Sharafedin & Sevgili, 2022). In the UK, the situation has become so dire that having one’s energy bills paid for was recently included as a prize by outlets such as the Daily Mail and ITV’s This Morning Show (Peat, 2022). The rise in prices has also prompted social outrage on a large scale, leading to protests across the continent as people are increasingly being forced to choose between eating and heating (Gill, 2022) while others are questioning whether they will continue to be able to afford life-saving medical treatment (Sharafedin & Sevgili, 2022).
Some price control measures have been implemented recently, alleviating the situation slightly, with many governments spending major sums of money to bail out local energy companies, nationalize major gas importers, increase liquidity, and cap prices for consumers. As of September 2022, this has succeeded in dropping prices by as much as 8.8%, which has come as a relief to many (Dezem, 2022). However, fears remain about how the situation will evolve with the arrival of winter.
The combination of still-sky-high energy bills and a shortage of supply has many fearing complete blackouts, rationing, or even complete collapse. Energy costs are already projected to worsen; in the UK, it is set to rise 80% after October, and the average household is set to spend around 10% of its income on energy bills at the time of this article’s publication (Sharafedin & Sevgili, 2022). Beyond the already dire possibility of cold homes and unaffordable bills, the chill of winter also has the potential to destabilize entire industries. “Even the slightest uptick in energy demand” in the face of a harsh winter might be capable of pushing Europe’s manufacturing sector towards shutdown, bringing with it higher costs of living, unemployment, and political unrest (Bove, 2022). Even worse, it has become clear that this crisis will not be over after one hard winter, but is instead likely to yield several in the coming years (Milne, 2022).
Some experts, on the other hand, believe that the situation will not escalate to that extent, citing the 1973-1974 European oil crisis, which ultimately proved less severe than expected, as a parallel to the current one (Brew, 2022). Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but it is without question that this winter will be extremely difficult for Europe. It is also an important reminder that the stable energy sector that most of us take, or had been taking, for granted is much more fragile than we realize. Building a more resilient system, particularly one that is more focused on local and renewable energy sources, is becoming increasingly essential to ensure energy security amidst any political or climatic stability we might face in the decades to come.
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