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What are the limits on air conditioner use in Italy?

As Spain and Germany announce new energy-saving measures, what is Italy doing to rein in its fuel consumption?

What measures has Italy introduced to reduce fuel consumption?
What measures has Italy introduced to reduce fuel consumption? Photo by Michu Đăng Quang on Unsplash

As much of mainland Europe continues to be pummelled by extreme heat and buffeted by a volatile energy market in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several European countries have recently taken steps to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

At the end of July, EU member states made a voluntary agreement to reduce their gas consumption by 15 percent this winter, and a number have announced new measures aimed at meeting this target.

Spain’s government on Monday approved an ‘energy saving plan’ that sets temperature limits of 27C in the summer and 19C in the winter for AC units in public buildings, shops, cultural centres such as theatres and cinemas, and transport hubs such as train stations and airports. 

These spaces must also install automatically closing doors by September 30th, and shop window lights must be turned off by 10pm.

In July Germany’s economy and climate minister laid out plans for an ‘energy security package’ that would, among other things, ban owners of private pools from heating them with gas over the winter, and suspend clauses in tenancy agreements that require renters to keep their homes above a minimum temperature.

And France’s government is working on an energy saving plan that will involve public administration, businesses and individuals, with the aim of cutting the country’s energy use by 10 percent over the next two years.

READ ALSO: Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

By comparison, Italy’s efforts to conserve energy to date have been limited in scope (the CEO of the Italgas company told Reuters in July that Italy would not need to cut its consumption by 15 percent, as it had sufficient stocks to get it through the winter).

On May 1st, a law came into force regulating the temperature on AC units and radiators in public buildings until May 31st, 2023.

The temperature in these spaces must not exceed 19 degrees Celsius in winter and cannot be any lower than 27 degrees in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature in the summer is actually 25C, and the highest in winter is 21C.

The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules range from €500 to €3,000, although it’s still unclear how checks or enforcement will be carried out.

READ ALSO: Milan blackouts blamed on air conditioning as heatwave intensifies

Italy hopes that these steps will result in savings of between 2 and 4 billion cubic meters of gas, allowing its to achieve its stated aim of weaning the country off Russian gas by the end of 2023.

According to recent reports, the government has discussed further measures to encourage the general public to cut their energy consumption, including restricting personal AC use and further limiting the use of heating in private homes this winter – though no such plans have yet been formally announced.

In fact, Italy will continue to offer tax discounts of between 50 and 65 percent on AC units until the end of this year as part of its 2022 building renovations bonus scheme – though the units must meet certain minimum energy efficiency standards.

Other energy-saving plans reportedly drawn up by the government – albeit for use in a worst case scenario – include the enforced early closure of shops, public offices, restaurants and bars.

A reduction in municipal electricity consumption has also been discussed, which could mean fewer street lamps and delaying switching on the lights in apartment blocks.

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How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

European governments are announcing emergency measures on a near-weekly basis to protect households and businesses from the energy crisis stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine.

How European countries are spending billions on easing energy crisis

Hundreds of billions of euros and counting have been shelled out since Russia invaded its pro-EU neighbour in late February.

Governments have gone all out: from capping gas and electricity prices to rescuing struggling energy companies and providing direct aid to households to fill up their cars.

The public spending has continued, even though European Union countries had accumulated mountains of new debt to save their economies during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But some leaders have taken pride at their use of the public purse to battle this new crisis, which has sent inflation soaring, raised the cost of living and sparked fears of recession.

After announcing €14billion in new measures last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi boasted the latest spending put Italy, “among the countries that have spent the most in Europe”.

The Bruegel institute, a Brussels-based think tank that is tracking energy crisis spending by EU governments, ranks Italy as the second-biggest spender in Europe, after Germany.

READ ALSO How EU countries aim to cut energy bills and avoid blackouts this winter

Rome has allocated €59.2billion since September 2021 to shield households and businesses from the rising energy prices, accounting for 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product.

Germany tops the list with €100.2billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP, as the country was hit hard by its reliance on Russian gas supplies, which have dwindled in suspected retaliation over Western sanctions against Moscow for the war.

On Wednesday, Germany announced the nationalisation of troubled gas giant Uniper.

France, which shielded consumers from gas and electricity price rises early, ranks third with €53.6billion euros allocated so far, representing 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Spending to continue rising
EU countries have now put up €314billion so far since September 2021, according to Bruegel.

“This number is set to increase as energy prices remain elevated,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, told AFP.

The energy bills of a typical European family could reach €500 per month early next year, compared to €160 in 2021, according to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

The measures to help consumers have ranged from a special tax on excess profits in Italy, to the energy price freeze in France, and subsidies public transport in Germany.

But the spending follows a pandemic response that increased public debt, which in the first quarter accounted for 189 percent of Greece’s GDP, 153 percent in Italy, 127 percent in Portugal, 118 percent in Spain and 114 percent in France.

“Initially designed as a temporary response to what was supposed to be a temporary problem, these measures have ballooned and become structural,” Tagliapietra said.

“This is clearly not sustainable from a public finance perspective. It is important that governments make an effort to focus this action on the most vulnerable households and businesses as much as possible.”

Budget reform
The higher spending comes as borrowing costs are rising. The European Central Bank hiked its rate for the first time in more than a decade in July to combat runaway inflation, which has been fuelled by soaring energy prices.

The yield on 10-year French sovereign bonds reached an eight-year high of 2.5 percent on Tuesday, while Germany now pays 1.8 percent interest after boasting a negative rate at the start of the year.

The rate charged to Italy has quadrupled from one percent earlier this year to four percent now, reviving the spectre of the debt crisis that threatened the eurozone a decade ago.

“It is critical to avoid debt crises that could have large destabilising effects and put the EU itself at risk,” the International Monetary Fund warned in a recent blog calling for reforms to budget rules.

The EU has suspended until 2023 rules that limit the public deficit of countries to three percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent.

The European Commission plans to present next month proposals to reform the 27-nation bloc’s budget rules, which have been shattered by the crises.