Advice for Europeans: bundle up and prepare for breakdowns

Advice for Europeans: bundle up and prepare for breakdowns

Life in some European cities could soon look like this: staggered power cuts to save energy. Temporary cuts in mobile phone and Internet services. Schools closed for lack of lighting and heating. Even traffic lights could be briefly extinguished.

Europe has spent months preparing for a winter without Russian gas, stockpiling fuel and putting conservation measures in place in hopes of conserving enough energy to run power grids.

But as an unseasonably warm streak gives way to freezing temperatures, governments are beginning to prepare people for the possibility of controlled blackouts in the event of power shortages – with a dramatic impact on the everyday life.

The French government last week began asking officials across the country to plan for possible blackouts as early as next month. UK operator National Grid has warned households of potential power outages between 4pm and 7pm if the gas used to generate electricity runs out. Electric car owners in Finland are advised not to heat up their plugged-in vehicles on frosty mornings to avoid overloading the grid.

And in Germany, the country that has been most dependent on Russian gas, people are taking no chances: sales of candles have exploded.

A few hours without electricity in a French café or a German supermarket would be nowhere more painful than the situation facing the people of Ukraine, where Russia’s systematic bombardment of the energy grid has left millions of people facing to a freezing winter without electricity, heat and water provides day and night in sub-zero temperatures and snow.

Yet the prospect of homes, schools, businesses and even trains that rely on electricity and electrical signals going out, however briefly, will be Europe’s first major test of resilience as it diverts Russian fuel.

European officials insist that rationing plans are only a last resort, to avoid uncontrolled blackouts if domestic electricity production and imported electricity are not enough to prevent electricity systems from collapsing.

“We are not in a disaster movie,” French government spokesman Olivier Véran told French television last week. “We are not announcing that cuts will take place, but if we have a particularly cold and energy-intensive winter, there could be tense situations and we are preparing for all scenarios.”

Any planned power outages 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 would last two hours in the morning or early evening, when electricity consumption is highest, would not apply to so-called sensitive sites, in particular hospitals, nursing homes, fire and police stations and jails.

Europe has made a concerted effort since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February to avert a worst-case scenario by completing natural gas reserves and even restarting coal-fired power plants to generate electricity. A near-total embargo on Russian oil begins Monday, one of several steps the bloc has taken to starve the Kremlin of revenue from the sale of fossil fuels and limit its ability to wage war in Ukraine.

Unusually warm weather in October and November allowed households and businesses to keep their boilers turned off, allowing gas inventories to last longer than expected and pushing gas prices down.

But Europe is now facing its first major cold spell, with a blast of arctic air from Greenland set to drop temperatures in the coming days. Governments have already tapped into some of the emergency gas reserves, driving European natural gas prices to their highest levels in six weeks.

France, once Europe’s biggest exporter of electricity thanks to its 56 nuclear power stations, is struggling to resolve a series of problems that have left almost half of its atomic fleet offline, depriving its neighbors of a vital source of energy. Electricité de France, or EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power plants, last week announced the restart of a gigantic reactor in northern France, although further delays are expected at other nuclear sites.

A recent report by the European Network of Transmission System Operators showed that electricity supply in France, Sweden and Finland, among other places, was at risk of cuts.

All of this caused a wave of not-so-subtle signals for Europeans to start hiding to disrupt their electricity-fueled lives.

Germany has issued advisories on what to expect in the event of a power outage. “The phone is dead, the heating does not turn on, there is no hot water, the computer goes on strike, the coffee machine remains off, there is no light”, the Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance said on its website. .

“You will soon notice how dependent you are on electricity,” added the agency, which translated the site into English, Turkish and Ukrainian.

The bureau urges households to stock up on battery-powered flashlights and candles, and even suggests camping stoves for cooking small meals. “Warm clothes can replace heating for a while,” the agency said, but advised households to consider installing alternative heating sources.

As in France, German officials have insisted that an electricity crisis is unlikely, but “cannot be completely ruled out”, the finance ministry acknowledged. Authorities have taken no chances, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government taking the politically controversial decision to roll back plans to shut down the country’s last three nuclear reactors this month and set fire to coal-fired power stations in the hope to compensate for the loss of Russian gas. .

In Switzerland, which has long depended on French nuclear power for its winters, citizens have been told to prepare for shutdowns that can last up to several hours. The Federal Electricity Commission has urged people to have enough firewood, flashlights and batteries.

Even electric cars are not immune. Finland’s electricity grid operator Fingrid has warned that power generation is under strain due to EU sanctions against Russia and the delayed opening of Finland’s EDF-built Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor.

In a country where almost a third of all vehicles are electric, Fingrid is urging owners to forego the luxury of turning on the heater in the plugged-in car to melt the ice from the windows in the morning when electricity demand is at its maximum.

“This ice can be scraped off with elbow grease,” the company said.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron in France has set up a national alert system to telegraph any power cuts in advance. Three days before the power goes out anywhere, officials will make a public announcement and alert people on their cellphones through an app called EcoWatt that officials have urged everyone to download.

The government would confirm power cuts at 5 p.m. the day before they were carried out. The cuts would not last more than two hours, between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., or 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

While emergency sites would continue to receive power, many other locations would not. Schools would not be spared: students will be instructed to stay home in the morning when classes are canceled for lack of heat and light, and to return in the afternoon. (The internet also won’t work, making distance learning difficult.)

Even trains could stop for a few hours in the affected areas, as the power needed to operate the signals would be cut off. The government said it would warn drivers to “limit their movements as much as possible” because traffic lights could be “inoperative”.

Cell towers will also stop working in areas where power is out. Christel Heydemann, chief executive of Orange, France’s biggest telecommunications operator, warned last week that emergency phone calls may not be possible if mobile networks lose power. The government said people could still dial 112, the European number for emergencies.

Despite these assurances, Ms Heydemann said: ‘It is an illusion to imagine that we will be able to maintain service to all French people in the event of power cuts.’

Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.

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