Here’s what EU countries are doing to save energy ahead of winter
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No more ties, shorter showers — European leaders are intent on signaling that everyone will have to do their part as they sketch out national plans to save energy ahead of a winter crunch.
EU gas reserves are currently 71 percent full — about 9 percent short of the target the bloc set itself earlier this summer by November 1 — and countries have committed to reducing their gas demand by 15 percent by March as part of bloc-wide rationing measures.
The stakes aren’t the same across the bloc. In Germany and Italy, a shut-off of Russian gas would hit industry hard and affect people’s ability to heat their homes. In Sweden and Finland, where gas makes up a smaller portion of the overall energy mix, the impact would be less drastic.
A number of at-risk countries, including Germany and France, have come up with plans to reduce their energy use. These will have “a big impact” on reducing consumption across the bloc, said Antonin Chapelot, policy lead at the Coalition for Energy Savings NGO.
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He stressed that beyond immediate measures aimed at surviving the winter, governments will also have to take longer term steps, for example renovating buildings to be more energy efficient and switching to greener central heating technologies.
We take a look at what some countries are doing to save energy — and the political and economic impact of those measures.
The plan: France announced an “energy sobriety” plan in mid-July. Most measures are still in draft stages and are slated to be presented toward the end of September. Energy Transition Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher has already indicated the government aims to prohibit stores from leaving their doors open while air conditioning and heating are running. It also wants to ban illuminated advertising in all cities between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. — a measure that already applies to cities with fewer than 800,000 inhabitants and one critics say isn’t properly enforced.
The impact: The new plan is meant to slash French energy consumption by 10 percent compared to 2019 by 2024. France gets about a fifth of its gas supply from Moscow.
The political reception: Hendrik Davi, an MP from far-left party France Insoumise, has slammed the plan for taking only “small steps” and called for “deep transformation” of consumption habits, while Socialist MP Rémi Cardon similarly criticized the focus on street lighting as tokenistic. On the far-right, National Rally politician and Vice President of the National Assembly Sébastien Chenu called the move “symbolic.” He said French President Emmanuel Macron”would do well to start himself by turning off the lights of the Elysée.”
The plan: Spain has taken a more radical approach than other EU countries, this week issuing a decree ordering businesses to curb air conditioning at 27 degrees in summer and heating to 19C this winter. The government also told shops to install automatic locks to prevent doors from being left open while heating systems are running, and make sure their shopfronts go dark from 10 p.m. Similar measures are already in place for public buildings. The measures are optional for households for now.
The impact: Madrid gets only around 10 percent of its gas from Moscow. Nonetheless, Spain said such changes in behavior can “reduce the demand for gas and oil by 5 percent in the short term,” and would help the country achieve its goal of cutting gas consumption by 7 percent by March.
The political reception: Parts of the opposition are not happy with the sweeping measures, arguing that they limit individual freedom. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative president of the Community of Madrid, vowed that the law would not be applied in the Spanish capital, saying it “generates insecurity and scares off tourism and consumption.”
The plan: Despite being one of the most vocal advocates of energy savings, Berlin doesn’t yet have a binding plan to slash energy consumption. In late July, it issued a set of recommendations, some of which it says will become legally binding. The government called on public buildings and office buildings to stop heating “rooms where people do not regularly spend time,” such as corridors and large halls. It also recommended that big industries implement energy-saving measures that “pay off economically within two years.” To support households in saving energy, Berlin also got rid of a requirement for tenants to maintain a minimum temperature in apartments.
In the absence of binding rules, a number of German cities and states have adopted their own measures, for example reducing street lighting and setting temperature limits in public buildings. The capital is switching off the spotlights illuminating 200 of its historic buildings and monuments, while Bavaria has issued its own plan to save energy in public administration buildings.
The impact: Germany is particularly dependent on Russian imports, which account for about a third of its gas supply.
The political reception: In the wake of Spain’s new plan, German NGOs called on Berlin to come out with binding measures. Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck in June already conceded that new legislation may become necessary if gas storage levels are too low. But others aren’t yet on board: Klara Geywitz, the country’s construction minister, came out against “legally prescribed freezing.”
The plan: None so far. Despite Italy being one of the EU countries most dependent on Russian gas — with around 40 percent imported from Moscow last year — the country’s Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani last week said there would be no “draconian” measures to tamp down demand. But in July, the government announced it was drafting an emergency savings plan that could include limiting heating to 19C in winter and cooling to 27C in summer, reducing street lighting at night, and closing shops early, according to early drafts seen by local media.
The impact: Italy is looking to reduce 7 percent of gas demand by March, partly by boosting its coal-powered generation. Cingolani previously said that reducing heating by 1C in buildings could save up to 2 billion cubic meters of gas a year. He also insisted Italy “would be fine” until February even if Russia cuts off gas supplies completely as Rome has secured a raft of new gas deals in recent months.
The political reception: Not everyone’s so optimistic. Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development presented a report to the government in July urging further intervention to reduce demand. With the country heading for elections in September, the issue is likely to fall into the lap of the new administration.
The plan: Warsaw hasn’t put forward a national plan to save on energy. With Russian gas supplies already down to zero, much of Poland’s political debate is focused on the threat of a looming coal shortage that could leave some households unable to keep warm this winter. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in July appealed to Poles to insulate their homes ahead of what he called a “difficult” heating season. In the same speech, Morawiecki announced the country would allocate “further billions” to its clean air program providing subsidies to homeowners for better insulation and the purchase of cleaner heating systems.
The impact: Poland relied on Russia for about 40 percent of its gas needs, but only uses gas for 9 percent of its energy mix. Coal shortages could hit the country much harder as analysts fear the country will find itself short between 1 million and 2 million tons of coal over the winter.
The political reception: Opposition figures have mocked the nationalist government for offering Poles advice rather than coming up with solutions. Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, a deputy leader of the opposition Civic Platform party, said Poles were left to “cope on their own.”
The plan: No plan so far. Last month the Czech trade ministry released an energy savings “manual” offering free consultations for energy-efficient renovations and tips including shading windows and turning off the lights. “Everyone can join the fight for energy independence, bigger changes start with individuals,” said Trade Minister Jozef Síkela. Some changes to regulations are reportedly being prepared, including a shortening of the official heating season — which governs the time period when heat must be supplied to buildings.
The impact: The Czech Republic is almost totally dependent on gas from Russia, with most of it going to industry and around one-quarter used for heating households. The average gas consumption per resident is also 20 percent higher than the EU average, meaning demand reductions could have a large impact. Prague has said it would boost coal in an emergency, while officials are also looking to the Netherlands for more liquefied natural gas and encouraging a switch to heat pumps to lower the impact of a gas crunch.
The political reception: With energy saving plans in their infancy, the political reaction has so far been muted, but experts have urged further action. Michal Macenauer, director of strategy at EGÚ Brno consultancy, told Czech daily Seznam Zprávy that Prague should launch an information campaign asking small businesses to voluntarily reduce consumption and create subsidies to households for reducing consumption as a way to dampen demand.
Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.
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