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ENERGY

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
Photo by Arthur Lambillotte on Unsplash

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.

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ENERGY

How electricity prices are rising across Germany

As the year draws to an end, price comparison portals have observed huge spikes in electricity costs across Germany - though the scale of the price hikes vary across different regions.

How electricity prices are rising across Germany

According to analysis carried out by comparison portal Check24, there were at least 580 cases of price increases in the basic electricity supply at the beginning of the year, with around 7.3 million households affected.

Electricity costs increased by an average of 60 percent, the analysis found, though in some cases were much higher. In the case of the Cologne-based supplier Rheinenergie, a kilowatt hour of electricity has gone up to 55 cents – 130 percent higher than the previous price. 

Comparison portal Verifox, which conducted its own analysis, found that prices were rising by an average of 54 percent across the board. 

“The new year is beginning with a massive wave of price increases for electricity,” said Verifox energy expert Thorsten Storck.

Analysts also noted strong regional differences in the scale of the price increases, with Munich and Cologne topping the list for the most expensive electricity. 

In Munich, a kilowatt hour of energy will cost 61.9 cents from January, compared to 55 cents in Cologne.

Meanwhile, MVV Energie in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, will charge almost 45 cents per kWh for its basic supply from January onwards – instead of the previous 27 cents. The East German energy supplier EnviaM, based in Chemnitz, will charge 48.1 cents in the future – 20.1 cents more than before.

In Potsdam in Brandenburg, the region supplier is raising its electricity prices by around 21 percent to 46.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

READ ALSO: ‘It’s going to be a bleak winter’: How people in Germany are coping with the energy crisis

Why are the prices so high? 

In a statement explaining the imminent jump in prices, Rheinenergie pointed to the huge increase in their procurement costs and other overheads.

“Compared to the previous year, prices on the electricity exchanges have risen by more than 300 percent,” they explained. “At their peak they had increased more than tenfold. In addition, the grid fees are also rising.” 

The extreme spike on the markets is yet another consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sent the price of natural gas soaring.

An electricity pylon near a motorway in Lower Saxony.

An electricity pylon near a motorway in Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Moritz Frankenberg

Though gas isn’t the only component involved in producing electricity – much cheaper renewables also account for a decent portion of Germany’s supply – it does have a significant impact on prices. That’s because of something known the “merit order,” in which the most expensive gas-fired plant used to produce electricity is decisive in setting the cost.  

READ ALSO: Germany’s Scholz dims lights on Christmas tree amid energy squeeze

What can customers do?

How to handle the latest wave of price increases may in part depend on who your current supplier is.

According to Udo Sieverding, an energy expert at the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer advice centre, people using a private supplier should consider whether it would make more sense to fall back on the so-called “basic supply.” 

“Customers outside the basic supply should even consider making use of the special right of termination in case of price increases and let themselves fall into the basic supply,” he said. 

The basic supply – or Grundversorgung – is generally provided to people who don’t set up their own electricity or energy contract with another supplier. Prices are set on a regional level and used to be considered expensive, but in recent months they have generally slipped below the rates offered by private companies. 

For people already using the basic supply, the situation is a bit trickier.

“The electricity price increases at the turn of the year are in part drastic,” said Sieverding. “Unfortunately, the new customer tariffs via the intermediary portals are even higher, which means that a change of supplier won’t lead to savings in most tariff areas.”

That means it could make sense to sit tight for now and accept the higher prices, but keep an eye on any deals that could be offered in the coming months. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to save money on your German electricity bill

Will electricity stay this expensive in the future? 

Energy prices were rising dramatically even before Russia’s war on Ukraine – in part due to pandemic supply issues – and experts don’t think they’re set to drop anytime soon. 

According to analysis by Check24, a sample household with an annual consumption of 5000 kWh paid an average of 29.4 cents per kWh in November 2020. One year later, it was 31.6 cents. Currently, the average is 42.7 cents.

Apartments in Lower Saxony

A few apartments are lit up in a tower block in Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Electricity market expert Mirko Schlossarczyk, who works for consultancy firm Enervis, said 40 cents per kilowatt-hour was likely to be the new normal in 2023 and 2024, and that prices could even rise to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour after that. 

Although wholesale electricity prices could fall again significantly in the future, as a result of a prospective drop in gas prices and the increased expansion of renewable energies – the noticeably larger share of the end customer price would be accounted for by levies, surcharges, fees, and taxes, Schlossarczyk said.

“We will not see a return to 32 cents (the pre-war price) in the coming years simply because of the comparatively high wholesale electricity price level and the already announced increases in grid fees,” he added. 

But isn’t there supposed to be a price cap coming?

That’s right: from March 2023, the government plans to introduce a cap on electricity prices that will apply retrospectively from January.

However, this still won’t take electricity bills back to pre-war levels. Instead, 80 percent of a household’s normal electricity consumption will be capped at a price of 40 cents per kilowatt hour, while any excess over this will be billed at ordinary market prices.

That is likely to mean that households that don’t reduce their consumption by at least 20 percent still face much higher bills, and even those that do will pay an average of eight cents more for a kilowatt hour of electricity than they were in 2021. 

READ ALSO: Germany plans to cap energy prices from start of 2023

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