Life in some European cities could soon look like this: staggered blackouts to save energy. Temporary cuts in mobile telephony and internet. Schools closed due to lack of lighting and heating. Even traffic lights could be switched off for a short time.
Europe spent months preparing for a winter without Russian gas, stockpiling fuel and implementing austerity measures in the hope of preserving enough energy to keep the power grids running.
But as an unusual spell of mild weather gives way to freezing temperatures, governments are beginning to prepare people for the possibility of controlled power outages in the event that energy supplies are stretched – with a wide-ranging impact on everyday life.
The French government last week began instructing officials across the country to start planning for possible rolling blackouts as early as next month. Britain’s National Grid operator has warned households of possible blackouts from 4pm to 7pm if the gas used to generate electricity runs out. Electric car owners in Finland are advised not to heat their connected vehicles on freezing mornings to avoid overloading the electricity grid.
And in Germany, the country that has been most dependent on Russian gas, people are not taking any risks: candle sales have soared.
A few hours without power in a French café or in a German supermarket would nowhere be more painful than the situation people are facing in Ukraine, where Russia’s systematic bombing of the power grid has left millions of people freezing winter without electricity, heat and water. delivered day and night in sub-zero temperatures and snow.
Still, the prospect of homes, schools, businesses and even trains that rely on power and electrical signals going dark, however brief, will be Europe’s first major test of resilience as it turns away from Russian fuel.
European officials emphasize that the rationing plans are only a last resort, to prevent uncontrolled blackouts when domestic electricity production and imported power are not enough to prevent power systems from crashing.
“We are not in a disaster movie,” French government spokesman Olivier Véran said on French television last week. “We are not announcing that cuts will take place, but if we get a particularly cold and energy-intensive winter, tensions may arise and we are preparing for all scenarios.”
Any planned power cut in France would be telegraphed days in advance and would affect small parts of the country at different times, the government said. The cuts, which last for two hours in the morning or early evening when power consumption is high, will not apply to so-called sensitive locations, including hospitals, nursing homes, fire and police stations and prisons.
Europe has made a concerted effort since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February to avoid a worst-case situation by topping up natural gas reserves and even restarting coal plants to generate electricity. A near-total embargo on Russian oil begins on Monday, one of several moves the bloc has taken to deny the Kremlin revenue from fossil fuel sales and limit its ability to wage war in Ukraine.
The unseasonably warm weather in October and November allowed households and businesses to keep their furnaces turned off, extending gas supplies beyond expectations and sending skyrocketing gas prices.
But Europe is now facing its first major cold snap, with an Arctic air blast from Greenland expected to plummet temperatures in the coming days. Governments have already tapped some of the emergency gas reserves, pushing European natural gas prices back to their highest level in six weeks.
France, once Europe’s largest exporter of electricity thanks to its 56 nuclear power plants, is struggling to solve a series of problems that have left nearly half of its nuclear fleet offline, depriving its neighbors of a vital source of energy. Électricité de France, or EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power plants, announced last week the restart of a giant reactor in northern France, though further delays are expected at other nuclear sites.
A recent report by the European Network of Transmission System Operators showed that the electricity supply in France, Sweden and Finland, among others, was at risk of failure.
All of this has spawned a wave of not-so-subtle signals for Europeans to be wary of disruptions to their electricity-powered lives.
Germany has issued advice on what to expect in a blackout. “The phone cuts out, the heating doesn’t turn on, there is no hot water, the computer goes on strike, the coffee maker stays off, there is no light,” the Bureau of Civil Protection and Disaster Relief reports on its website. .
“You soon notice how dependent you are on electricity,” adds the agency, which translated the site into English, Turkish and Ukrainian.
The office is urging households to stock up on battery-powered flashlights and candles, even suggesting camp stoves to prepare small meals. “Warm clothes can be used as a replacement for heating for a while,” the agency said, but advised households to think about installing alternative heat sources.
As in France, German officials have insisted that a power crisis is unlikely but “cannot be completely ruled out,” the finance ministry acknowledged. Authorities have taken no chances as Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government made the politically divided decision to cancel plans to shut down the country’s last three nuclear reactors this month and burn coal-fired plants in hopes of reducing the loss of Russian make up for gas. .
In Switzerland, which has long depended on French nuclear energy for its winters, citizens are being urged to prepare for power cuts that could last up to several hours. The Federal Electricity Commission urged people to have enough firewood, flashlights and batteries.
Even electric cars are not immune. Finland’s electricity grid operator, Fingrid, warned that electricity production has come under pressure due to European sanctions against Russia and the delayed opening of Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor, built by EDF.
In a country where nearly a third of all vehicles are electric, Fingrid is urging owners to forego the luxury of turning on the connected car’s heater in the morning, when power demand is highest, to melt ice off the windows.
“That ice can be scraped off with elbow grease,” the company said.
The government of President Emmanuel Macron in France has set up a nationwide warning system to telegraph any advancing power cuts well in advance. Three days before electricity was due to be cut off somewhere, officials will make a public announcement, warning people on their cell phones through an app called EcoWatt that officials have urged everyone to download.
The government would confirm the power cuts at 5pm the day before they take place. The outage would last no longer than two hours, between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. or between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
While emergency locations will continue to receive power, many other places will not. Schools would not be spared: students are instructed to stay home in the morning when classes are canceled due to lack of heat and light, and return in the afternoon. (The internet isn’t working either, making distance learning difficult.)
Even trains could be stopped for a few hours in affected areas as the power needed to operate signals would be cut off. The government said it would warn drivers to “limit their movements as much as possible” because traffic lights “are not working”.
Cell phone towers will also stop working in areas where power has been cut. Christel Heydemann, the CEO of Orange, France’s largest telecom operator, warned last week that emergency calls may not be possible if mobile networks are out of power. The government said people can still call 112, the European emergency number.
Despite those assurances, Ms Heydemann said: “It is an illusion to imagine that we can continue to serve all French people in the event of a power cut.”
Melissa Eddie contributed reporting from Berlin.