European homes prepare for winter amid energy crisis

Cooling towers at a coal-fired power station in China. The world’s second-largest economy is facing energy shortages. [AP]

As Europe heads into winter in the throes of an energy crisis, offices are getting chillier. Statues and historic buildings are going dark.

Bakers who can’t afford to heat their ovens are talking about giving up, while fruit and vegetable growers face letting greenhouses stand idle.

In poorer eastern Europe, people are stocking up on firewood, while in wealthier Germany, the wait for an energy-saving heat pump can take half a year. And businesses don’t know how much more they can cut back.

“We can’t turn off the lights and make our guests sit in the dark,” said Richard Kovacs, business development manager for Hungarian burger chain Zing Burger.

The restaurants already run the grills no more than necessary and use motion detectors to turn off lights in storage, with some stores facing a 750 per cent increase in electricity bills since the beginning of the year.

With costs high and energy supplies tight, Europe is rolling out relief programs and plans to shake up electricity and natural gas markets as it prepares for rising energy use this winter.

The question is whether it will be enough to avoid government-imposed rationing and rolling blackouts after Russia cut back natural gas needed to heat homes, run factories and generate electricity to a tenth of what it was before invading Ukraine.

Europe’s dependence on Russian energy has turned the war into an energy and economic crisis, with prices rising to record highs in recent months and fluctuating wildly.

Workers install solar planers on the roof of a house in Rivas Vaciamadrid, Spain, Thursday, September 15, 2022. [AP]

In response, governments have worked hard to find new supplies and conserve energy, with gas storage facilities now 86 per cent full ahead of the winter heating season — beating the goal of 80 per cent by November.

They have committed to lower gas use by 15 per cent, meaning the Eiffel Tower will plunge into darkness over an hour earlier than normal while shops and buildings shut off lights at night or lower thermostats.

Europe’s ability to get through the winter may ultimately depend on how cold it is and what happens in China. Shutdowns aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 have idled large parts of China’s economy and meant less competition for scarce energy supplies.

Even if there is gas this winter, high prices already are pushing people and businesses to use less and forcing some energy-intensive factories like glassmakers to close.

Bakers like Andreas Schmitt in Frankfurt, Germany, are facing the hard reality that conservation only goes so far.

Schmitt is heating fewer ovens at his 25 Cafe Ernst bakeries, running them longer to spare startup energy, narrowing his pastry selection to ensure ovens run full, and storing less dough to cut refrigeration costs. 

Schmitt, head of the local bakers’ guild, said some small bakeries are contemplating giving up. Government help will be key in the short term, he said, while a longer-term solution involves reforming energy markets themselves.

In Bulgaria, the poorest of the EU’s 27 members, surging energy costs are forcing families to cut extra spending ahead of winter to ensure there is enough money to buy food and medicine.

More than a quarter of Bulgaria’s seven million people can’t afford to heat their homes, according to EU statistics office Eurostat, the highest in the 27-nation bloc due to poorly insulated buildings and low incomes.

Nearly half of households use firewood in winter as the cheapest and most accessible fuel, but rising demand and galloping inflation have driven prices above last year’s levels.

An employee pushes rolls into one of the gas-heated ovens in the producing facility in Neu Isenburg, Germany, Monday, September 19, 2022. [AP]

In the capital, Sofia, where almost half a million households have heating provided by central plants, many sought other options after a 40 per cent price increase was announced.

Grigor Iliev, a 68-year-old retired bookkeeper, and his wife decided to cancel their central heating and buy a combined air conditioner-heating unit for their two-room apartment.

Meanwhile, businesses are trying to stay afloat without alienating customers. Klara Aurell, an owner of two Prague restaurants, said she’s done all she can to conserve energy.

“We use LED bulbs, we turn the lights off during the day, the heating is only when it gets really cold and we use it only in a limited way,” she said.

“We also take measures to save water and use energy-efficient equipment. We can hardly do anything else. The only thing to remain is to increase prices. That’s how it is.”