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ENERGY

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

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts
Lighting could be cut on public monuments in Germany in an energy-saving measure. Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure affordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

Member comments

  1. I also read your article on using solar panels in Italy, updated May 2022. But wanted to add: there are other methods of installing solar that don’t involve awkward, unsightly panels on an historic roof.

    There is a document, produced with the financial assistance of the EU under the ENPI CBC Mediterranean Sea Basin Programme, entitled, “Guidelines on Building Integration of Photovoltaic in the Mediterranean Area.” I found it while reading about the architecture of Florence’s Meyer research facility. As an architect, I am interested in how solar can be adapted to historic buildings without detracting from their aesthetic.

    The “Guidelines” publication illustrates multiple options for integrating solar into an historic context. Some solutions are actual tiles (Tesla produces these) that mimic the terra cotta roof tiles of Italy hill towns and cities. There also is a film one can apply like a sticker.

    These would seem preferred installations in many cases, but I could also see using flat panels as one would place a skylight might be an appropriate solution. That would certainly be better than arcing up an array on unsightly metal framing.

    I’ve often heard that restrictions by design codes/reviews in Italy prevent the use of solar power within historic districts of Italian towns. But is this really the case? I can’t find the specifics through an online search. And while it is apparent there are incentives for installing solar, is the energy returned to the grid, or is a battery storage system necessary? Understandably, the cost to building owners, as well as local availability of the product and installation expertise, are issues.

    I know these are more technical pointss than might be needed for The Local. In any case, I am bringing the “Guidelnes” document to your attention, should it be able to inform the discussion about the use of photovoltaic devices on historic buildings.

  2. Hi there,
    Living here in Austria, this came of interest with energy prices doubling already.
    The article states in the Austria section: The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement.”

    Why would it want to ensure “unaffordable energy supply”? I would hope the aim would be to help the people living here actually afford the energy, with reasonable consumption…

    1. Hi!
      This is actually a mistake, the aim is to ensure “affordable energy supply”, not unaffordable. Thanks for pointing it out, the text has been corrected.

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ENERGY

Is now a good time to switch energy providers in Germany?

The market prices for electricity and gas in Germany are cheaper now than they have been for a long time, leading some consumer advisors to recommend customers shop around for lower tariffs.

Is now a good time to switch energy providers in Germany?

Why are energy prices going down? 

Last year, energy prices in Germany rose to record heights following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But now, partly thanks to a milder winter than initially feared, market prices for gas and electricity have taken a downturn.

READ ALSO: ‘Over half’ of Germans heating homes less or not at all

So far, however, most consumers are yet to benefit from the lower prices, as they are still being supplied with the electricity and gas that suppliers bought at higher prices last year.

This is particularly the case with the so-called basic suppliers (Grundversorger) – the companies that supply most customers in a region (such as Vattenfall or GASAG) – as they tend to buy electricity and gas on a long-term basis, in some cases years in advance. 

Last year, this meant that the basic suppliers could still offer the lower prices of the past, but gradually, they have had to raise their tariffs. 

“As a result, they now have some catching up to do and are passing on the high procurement prices to customers,” Christina Wallraf, an energy expert at the consumer advice centre in North Rhine-Westphalia explained.

Who is offering low prices?

Gas and electricity prices from so-called alternative suppliers – energy companies other than the basic suppliers – are now falling across the board.

This is because such suppliers have a short-term procurement strategy, which means they can “pass on favourable market prices more quickly than the basic suppliers buy for longer periods”, Hans Weinreuter from the Rhineland-Palatinate consumer centre explained.

For new customers – energy shoppers who join a new provider – prices are considerably cheaper than they were a few months ago. 

A green plug in front of an electricity bill. Photo: picture alliance / Jens Kalaene/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | Jens Kalaene

The current average price of a kilowatt hour of gas for new customers is currently around 14.3 cents – 64 percent less than the average at the beginning of September last year when it reached a peak of around 40 cents. 

Electricity prices for new customers have also dropped by around 24 percent since mid-October, when a kilowatt hour of electricity for new customers still cost an average of 56 cents, whereas the current price is 42.7 cents.

For basic suppliers, the prices have moved in the opposite direction. Since the beginning of September, basic gas supply prices rose on average from 12.7 to 17.7 cents per kWh, while the price of basic electricity supply rose by 27 percent – from 36.8 to 46.6 cents per kWh since mid-October.

When does it make sense to switch?

Numerous consumer advisors recommend those who are currently stuck in very expensive tariffs to look around for alternatives.

“That’s where a look at possible alternatives makes sense,” says Hans Weinreuter from the Rhineland-Palatinate Consumer Center.

Udo Sieverding, an energy expert at the consumer advice centre in North Rhine-Westphalia, told the Berliner Taggespiegel: “Anyone who wants to switch now has a good chance of finding a cheaper tariff.”

He added that there is no rush, however, and said that he considers “the risk of prices at discounters going up again in the next few months to be low”.

A man turns up the thermostat on a radiator.

A man turns up the thermostat on a radiator. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

However, Julia Schröder, an energy law expert at the Lower Saxony consumer advice centre, recommended that consumers should not take the decision to switch suppliers lightly, as this usually means being bound to a new provider for one or two years when “nobody can foresee” how prices will develop over the next 24 months. A change would therefore be worth it only if it resulted in substantial savings, she advised. 

However, Ingbert Liebing, CEO of the Association of Municipal Enterprises (VKU), recently criticised the appeals of experts to consumers to switch from basic suppliers to discounters with cheap tariffs.

READ ALSO: Energy prices could double long-term in Germany, utilities companies warn

“It was foreseeable that now again soldiers of fortune would enter the energy market and think they can make a quick deal, at the expense of the municipal utilities and basic suppliers,” he said of the lower tariffs currently on offer by alternative providers. 

He warned against cheap tariffs that lure customers in with low prices for a short period of time and then raise them again in a matter of months. 

Can I switch from a basic to a discount provider?

Theoretically, switching from a basic to an alternative energy provider should be straightforward. Unlike those in contracts with special tariffs, customers of basic suppliers generally have the legal right to cancel at any time with two weeks’ notice and look for another supplier.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to change electricity and gas providers in Germany

Those who are not with a basic supplier should look at their documents and check for how long their current gas supply contract is still valid. If there is a supplier with more favourable conditions, it may be worthwhile to terminate the contract. 

Oncoming price brakes

Another thing to bear in mind when considering whether to switch energy suppliers is the oncoming price brakes for gas and electricity. 

READ ALSO: 7 reasons to be optimistic about life in Germany in 2023

In the case of electricity, 80 percent of consumption will be capped at 40 cents per kilowatt hour from March, backdated to January. The same applies to gas: from March, backdated to January, natural gas customers will receive a state-guaranteed price of twelve cents per kilowatt hour for 80 percent of their previous annual consumption.

A person holds a wallet with cash.

A person holds a wallet with cash. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

Despite the price brakes, it can still be worth switching if the contractually agreed energy price with your current supplier is over 40 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity and over twelve cents per kilowatt hour for gas.

That’s largely because the price brakes for electricity and gas are currently limited to just one year.

“If the price brakes are not extended, every kilowatt hour consumed will cost the regular contract price again next year. This is another reason why it will be important for consumers to choose the cheapest possible tariff this year,” said Thorsten Storck from Verivox.

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