Europe's energy crisis: six flashpoints as countries brace for winter

Russian gas cuts and nuclear power problems hit Europe's energy security

A mural showing the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream pipeline whose output has been greatly reduced. AP
Powered by automated translation

With Europe facing a winter of energy woes in the shadow of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, The National looks at some of the problems facing the continent's under-pressure power grid.

1. Russian gas cuts

European countries are counting the cost of their years-long reliance on Russian oil and gas after the war in Ukraine poisoned relations between them and their large eastern neighbour.

Russia cut off gas exports to several European countries including Poland, Bulgaria and Finland for refusing to pay in roubles, a demand imposed by the Kremlin in March.

The main Russia-Germany pipeline, Nord Stream 1, is operating at only 20 per cent of capacity for what Russian exporter Gazprom claims are technical reasons but are regarded as spurious in Berlin.

The result is a scramble by countries such as Germany to stock up on gas for the winter and an initiative by the European Union to reduce gas consumption by 15 per cent in the cold months.

2. Summer drought

The winter cold will put Europe to the test, but the summer heat is not helping either.

The River Rhine dried up just as Germany needed it to transport coal to power plants that have been revived on a temporary basis to fill the gap left by Russian gas.

Ministers announced on Wednesday that fuel shipments would be given priority on trains to get around the problems caused by low water levels.

The drought is also affecting hydroelectricity generation, after water levels in reservoirs in Portugal fell to half the average of the previous seven years.

3. German transition

Germany has admitted being caught cold by mistakes in its energy policy. Europe's biggest economy became too reliant on Russian gas, said Economy Minister Robert Habeck. Floating gas terminals to allow imports from beyond Europe should have been built sooner, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

Mr Scholz has ordered a rethink on those issues but has so far stuck by the policy of switching off Germany's nuclear power plants this year, a long-cherished goal of the two biggest parties in his coalition.

The end date of December 31, 2022 has been set in stone for more than a decade but some MPs say it should be postponed because Germany cannot afford to waste gas on generating electricity.

Officials pushed the door open to a delay last month by saying they would recalculate a worst-case scenario for the winter, but there would be significant technical hurdles to keeping the last three nuclear reactors online.

4. French shutdowns

Unlike Germany, France is an unashamed champion of nuclear energy but a series of technical problems have lowered electricity output from its 56 reactors.

Nuclear generation was down by 15 per cent in the first half of 2022 after the discovery of corroded pipes during maintenance caused some of the plants to be taken offline.

Britain blamed the outages for a lower availability of electricity imports from France, while the cable that links the two countries may not be fully operational until 2023 after a fire last November.

5. British conundrums

Britain's quest to produce more energy at home is not going wholly smoothly, after the opening of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant was pushed back until 2027.

Then there are a number of running political sores over the merits, or not, of onshore wind, shale gas fracking, solar panels and small nuclear reactors.

Both candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister have committed in principle to the 2050 net zero target, but both are sceptical of solar power and Rishi Sunak has made clear he will not expand onshore wind.

The extent of Britain's energy crisis was made clear on Friday when regulators announced bills were climbing by 80 per cent this autumn with a further increase expected for 2023.

6. Iberian 'island'

Spain believes it could plug some of Europe's energy holes because of its healthy renewables sector and its status as a major importer of LNG from North Africa.

The problem is that there are few energy pipelines between Spain and France, making the Iberian peninsula what the European Commission has called an "energy island".

Regulators blocked a proposed gas pipeline between Catalonia and the south of France in 2019, but Spain is now urging the European Union to help link up the peninsula.

Updated: August 26, 2022, 7:16 AM