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ENERGY

European electricity prices soar as tough winter looms

European electricity prices soared to new records on Friday, presaging a bitter winter as Russia's invasion of Ukraine inflicts economic pain across the continent.

electricity pylons at sunset
Energy prices have soared in Europe as Russia has slashed natural gas supplies to the continent. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The year-ahead contract for German electricity reached 995 euros ($995) per megawatt hours while the French equivalent surged past 1,100 euros — a more than tenfold increase in both countries from last year.

In Britain, energy regulator Ofgem said it would increase the electricity and gas price cap almost twofold from October 1 to an average £3,549 ($4,197) per year.

Ofgem blamed the increase on the spike in global wholesale gas prices after the lifting of Covid restrictions and Russian curbs on supplies.

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, announced Friday that it would convene an EU energy crisis summit “at the earliest possible date”.

Energy prices have soared in Europe as Russia has slashed natural gas supplies to the continent, with fears of more drastic cuts in the winter amid tensions between Moscow and the West over the war.

One-fifth of European electricity is generated by gas-fired power plants, so drops in supply inevitably lead to higher prices.

European gas prices on Friday reached 341 euros per MWh, near the all-time high of 345 euros it struck in March.

The war is not the only culprit in France.

The shutdown of several nuclear reactors due to corrosion issues has contributed to the French electricity price increase as power production has dramatically decreased in the country.

Only 24 of the 56 reactors operated by energy giant EDF were online on Thursday.

READ ALSO: France extends shutdown of four nuclear reactors amid corrosion problems

France, which traditionally exports electricity, is now an importer.

“Winter is going to be a tough period for all the countries in Europe,” Giovanni Sgaravatti, research assistant at the Bruegl think tank in Brussels, told AFP.

“Prices will stay high, possibly they can even go higher,” he said.

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

Recession ‘probably unavoidable’

A Bruegel study found that European Union countries have allocated 236 billion euros from September 2021 to August 2022 to shield households and firms from rising energy prices, which began to increase as countries emerged from Covid restrictions and soared after the war.

In recent days and weeks, countries have announced energy-saving campaigns to encourage the public to reduce power consumption during the winter.

Germany announced Wednesday that the temperature of public administrative offices this winter would be capped at 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) while hot water would be shut off.

The German measures also include a ban on heating private swimming pools from September and over the six months that the decree is in place.

Finland is encouraging its citizens to lower their thermostats, take shorter showers and spend less time in saunas, a national tradition.

French households are shielded by an energy price cap until December 31 for now.

Industries are also affected by the soaring energy prices.

Factories that produce ammonia — an ingredient to make fertiliser — announced the suspension of their operations in Poland, Italy, Hungary and Norway this week.

HSBC bank warned in a note that “recession is probably unavoidable” in the eurozone, with the economy shrinking in the fourth quarter and the first three months of 2023.

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ENERGY

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

As the European energy crisis continues, some cities in Italy have chosen to save on electricity by downsizing regular Christmas displays, thus making this year’s festivities a little less flashy.

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

With less than a month to go until the Christmas holidays, many might be rejoicing at the prospect of finally seeing their cities lit up by dazzling Christmas displays.

But, as the European energy crisis shows no sign of abating and many cities across the boot keep struggling to square their accounts in the face of soaring bills, some residents may be disappointed to know that this year’s festive decorations might differ from the norm.

Milan, Italy’s economic capital, was one of the very first Italian cities to announce it would significantly reduce Christmas displays to save on energy.

READ ALSO: Lights off and home working: Milan’s new energy-saving plan for winter 

After reports emerged in early October that the city would end up spending a whopping €130 million on energy bills alone in 2022, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, was quick to warn residents that Christmas decorations would be “restrained” and operate “for shorter periods of time”.

And, it wasn’t long before Sala made good on his promises. 

Earlier this month, the city’s authorities agreed on putting up decorations and light displays on December 7th (that is over two weeks after the usual date) and taking them down on January 6th instead of late January. 

Christmas lights in the streets of central Milan

Christmas lights in Milan will be switched on on December 7th, that is over two weeks after the usual switch-on date. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Also, while in previous years Milan’s city centre was illuminated overnight, this year’s Christmas lights will be switched on at 4pm and switched off at midnight. 

But, while Milan residents might be slightly dissatisfied with the new arrangements, they sure have little to complain about when compared to Rome residents. 

It’ll be a dark Christmas (literally and, perhaps, even figuratively) for most areas of the Eternal City and not merely because of the current energy crisis. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis: The Italians reviving ‘nonna’s’ traditions to keep costs down

The city’s tender for this year’s Christmas lights contract received no bids before its deadline on October 27th, which means that, in many neighbourhoods, festive decorations will be largely left to the goodwill and financial means of the residents.

So while the popular Piazza di Spagna, Porta Pia and Via Alessandria will light up over the holiday season thanks to private funding, the San Giovanni and Tuscolano neighbourhoods and Via Cola di Rienzo are currently expected to remain au naturel.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Many areas of the capital, Rome, will be without lights this year due to lack of funding. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Things will generally be better in Venice and Florence, where local authorities have recently chosen to maintain their usual arrangements, the only exception being the replacement of regular lights with energy-efficient, LED ones. 

So, while the lighting might be a little softer and displays might not be as remarkable as in previous years, both cities should be able to deal with late-December energy bills more comfortably than they would have had to do otherwise.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Italy has avoided a huge hike in gas prices – for now 

Having said that, not all Italian cities have decided to resize their Christmas offerings on the back of eye-watering electricity prices. 

Naples, which has long been known for the extravagance of its Christmas and New Year celebrations, has seemingly chosen to turn a blind eye to the energy crisis and will allocate as much as €1.5 million (that’s €150,000 to each one of the ten local municipalities) to this year’s displays.

Unsurprisingly, the comune’s decision has been drawing widespread criticism, with many local political figures pointing out that part, if not most, of the above-mentioned amount should have been spent elsewhere, perhaps in the form of a one-off ‘Christmas bonus’ for struggling households and businesses.

The available money should have been used to “turn off the crisis and light up people’s hearts”, city councillors Antonio Culiers and Francesco Flores said in a joint statement earlier this month.

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