Facing embargoes on Russian fossil fuels and high energy prices, Europe survived last winter largely because of renewable energies, and the hard-nosed scrimping and saving of both Europe’s private sector and citizenry – not because of nuclear power. The continent’s populations hunkered down to conserve energy as never before: turning down heating, switching off non-essential lighting, taking shorter showers, donning heavier sweaters and woollen socks, vacationing closer to home, and insulating windows and doors, among other energy efficiency measures. However, as we will see, it was European industry that really saved the day, writes Paul Hockenos.
The EU’s gas demand fell last year by 13% (and by 19% from August 2022 to January 2023), which the International Energy Agency (IEA), called the bloc’s ‘steepest drop in history’. It credited the gas savings above all to industry, which cut down production hours, but also lowered room temperatures in buildings and installed heat pumps. In contrast, EU electricity demand fell by only around 3% last year.
‘In a high-price environment,’ concluded the IEA, ‘behavioural changes, rising fuel poverty, and fuel-switching in the residential and commercial sectors reduced natural gas demand in buildings by at least 7 billion cubic metres. Consumers lowered their thermostats by an average of around 0.6 °C. Such adjustments were, in part, a response to government-led campaigns to reduce energy demand. Additional savings arose from efforts to reduce heating and hot water usage in commercial and public buildings.’
In Germany, it was uncertain whether people would cooperate with the energy-saving directives. But lo and behold – and, sure, a friendly winter helped – ordinary citizens, civil servants, businesses and, above all, factories cut back gas consumption by about 14% in 2022, with industry leading the way.
And in early 2023, Germany logged even more gas savings: more than 30% during the first weeks of January as warm weather lessened demand for heating. Usage did increase again with February’s lower temperatures, leaving the reduced rate of consumption at around 20% less than recent winters.
Individual motivations varied: many saw no alternative in the face of soaring energy bills and inflation; others understood their sacrifice in terms of solidarity with the people of Ukraine; and yet others as a boon to climate protection. Whatever the reason, Europeans embarked on the energy saving actions that efficiency experts had long advocated – and hope to make permanent.
‘There was a positive attitude about conserving energy,’ says Karsten Neuhoff, who leads the Climate Policy Department at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). ‘People seemed to understand that they had to save gas to preventing the crisis from escalating – and they did.’ Giving credit where credit is due, Neuhoff says that ‘[i]ndustry cut back even more than ordinary people,’ citing high prices and the scaling back of some production.
Some voices, though, were less enthusiastic: ‘European countries got lucky with the weather and industry shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden of reducing demand,’ concluded John Kemp of the Reuters news agency.
Governments did lend a helping hand, approving emergency heating cost subsidies and passing energy-savings ordinances. In Germany, for example, retail stores had to keep their doors shut during the day and advertisement lighting off at night to reduce electricity consumption. In Denmark, Christmas lighting was reduced; Finns were encouraged to spend fewer hours in the sauna; and France banned the use of hot water in public buildings.
Germany’s Green Party hopes to keep gas consumption at a level no higher than that of last winter. They favour a ban on almost all new oil and gas heating from 2024. But their efforts have thus far been blocked by the coalition government’s other partners, who say it is too simply expensive for low-income families. A compromise agreement stipulates that heating systems should run on 65% renewable energy from 2024.
The European Commission wants Member States to extend their voluntary target to curb their gas demand by 15% compared to their 2017-2022 average consumption.
But this moderately good news doesn’t contradict the fact that Europe has to reach still higher to recalibrate to life without Russian fossil fuels and hit climate goals. The longer-term projects, like retrofitting all of Europe’s housing stock, lags woefully behind. According to Neuhoff, Germany should gradually up its pace of the energy-efficient refurbishing of old buildings from one percent a year to four percent. Heating and cooling of buildings accounts for about half of Europe’s energy consumption, more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions and 35% of gas consumption, according to Neuhoff’s think tank.
Prospects for winter of 2024
Klaus Müller, head of the Federal Network Agency, told the Financial Times that Germany’s power crisis ‘isn’t over’. If next winter is a cold one, Germany could again run the risk of shortages and blackouts. ‘The danger of a gas shortage is still there. It depends a lot on whether we continue to curb gas use and ensure diversified supplies into Germany. And there are risks.’
Deutsche Bank Research, the transmission system operator Amprion, and the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) all are convinced that Germany can do it again. With winter around the corner, Germany’s gas storage facilities are nearly full again. The big question is whether the energy-stingy habits of this most recent winter are the new normal – or the exception to the rule.