Europe, like South Africa, has an energy crisis and is facing controlled power cuts


It is December in Europe and the temperature is dropping. People have the heating on while they cook, run the washing machine and watch television. But in France, the grid operator has almost no options left to keep the lights on.

The utility has issued a “red” warning, meaning supplies are at their limit. It has already shut down some major industrial users and reduced voltage, even sending a mass request to households to curb their electricity consumption.

Many comply, but it’s crunch time. The operator has to take the drastic step of turning off the power in some places to avoid a total system collapse.

It’s a dramatic scenario, but one that governments across Europe are preparing for as the energy scarcity gripping the continent worsens by the week.

France’s Reseau de Transport d’Electricite said on Wednesday it will likely have to ask the country to cut consumption several times this winter to avoid power outages. Finland has also stepped up its power outage warnings.

The heightened warning follows Russia’s decision to cut gas supply through the main Nord Stream pipeline, raising the prospect of a shortage of gas to heat homes and generate electricity. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cut flows to Europe this year in retaliation for sanctions imposed after his country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The reality is that there isn’t enough gas in Europe,” said Ed Birkett, head of energy and climate at Onward, a London-based think tank. “If demand is not reduced, businesses will be forced off the grid and in an extreme scenario, households could be forced off the grid.”

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There are plenty of recent precedents. Texas’ power grid went out in cold weather in 2021, leaving millions of people without power for days. California came close to such a situation during extreme heat this month.

South Africa is no stranger to power outages, largely due to years of underinvestment and neglect of maintenance. They are scheduled in different areas at specific times when the state-owned Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd cannot guarantee enough power.

While residents are experienced in everyday life, the interruptions can be very disruptive, crippling appliances, turning off Wi-Fi and turning off traffic lights.

For Europe, a lot will depend on the weather in the coming months. Small temperature fluctuations can radically change the power requirement. In France, a 1 degree Celsius drop typically increases power demand by about 2,400 megawatts, the output of about two of the 56 nuclear reactors.

“If we have a really extreme winter, it would impact our grid just as much as it did Texas,” said Adam Bell, a consultant who previously led energy strategy at the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. “Anything people can do now to lower their demand will help the common cause.”

The European Commission on Wednesday proposed a regulation calling on governments to reduce total electricity consumption by 10%, as well as a mandatory 5% reduction during peak hours.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc said in a report that “the more reductions we see, especially in the summer, in gas consumption, the less likely it is that Europe will experience blackouts.”

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But some government support measures may exacerbate the problem. Price caps designed to help consumers and businesses cope with rising prices reduce incentives to reduce consumption.

Other factors also come into play. France, traditionally Europe’s largest electricity exporter, may need to import large amounts of power this winter as Electricite de France SA struggles with the diminished reliability of its aging nuclear fleet.

A dry summer affects hydropower across Europe, including Norway, also traditionally a major exporter.

If the crisis escalates, cutting off power to homes is a last resort, and there are a number of options that authorities will take first.

The easiest ones have already started. Governments have recommended lowering thermostats and shorter showers, as well as reducing self-consumption by lowering temperatures in public swimming pools and turning off outdoor lighting in public buildings at night.

The usual next step is that large energy-intensive companies, many of whom have already made agreements with governments, to reduce or shut down consumption.

After that, the choices become even more unpalatable.

In the case of France, the Ecowatt system allows people to track forecasts for the coming days of power supply and demand, with three levels: green, orange and red. If the grid operator expects the situation to become critical, he issues a warning the night before.

“In rare cases where not all electricity needs can be covered, local controlled outages of up to 2 hours can be organised,” says the EcoWatt website.

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Planned power losses, while bad, are still better than uncontrolled power outages due to unrelenting voltages on the supply. They enable operators to limit downtime, rather than being plunged into a chaotic situation that takes days to get things up and running again.

Elsewhere, similar processes are underway. If the emergency plan is activated in the UK, it would first ask households and industries to try and save energy. The next step would be for large energy-intensive companies to close their doors.

Recent evidence from California suggests that such measures work. On Sept. 6, the state’s Office of Emergency Services declared the highest emergency level for the power grid, then sent out a text warning: “Turn off or reduce non-essential power if health permits, now until 9 p.m.”

Within minutes the power consumption dropped. The emergency was later canceled without any blackouts.

France has published its own estimates to encourage compliance with such requests. If every household were to turn off one light bulb, it would save a whopping 600 megawatts, the equivalent of the consumption of 600,000 inhabitants.

“In general, the message to reduce demand across Europe does not seem to get through,” said Simone Tagliapietra, fellow at the think tank Bruegel in Brussels. “Walk through our cities – you’ll still see supermarkets closed at night with lights on. We’re just not there yet.”

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