How European countries are rationing heat as energy prices rise | Popgen Tech


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BRUSSELS — How low have you set the thermostat? This is the question of the hour on this cold continent.

Almost 10 months after Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, with temperatures plunging and the cost of power soaring, Europeans are being pressured to lower their institutions. For some, it’s a desperate attempt to cut exorbitant heating bills to make the rent. For others, it’s a point of pride: to ensure Europe doesn’t face fuel shortages this winter, or to hold it symbolically to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The energy situation in the European Union and Britain pales in comparison to what is happening in Ukraine. Russian forces have systematically targeted energy infrastructure, taking out the substations and transformers needed to keep the lights on and the heat on, leaving millions of Ukrainian civilians shivering as their country is relentlessly smeared.

But the consequences beyond Ukraine are significant. Even in relatively wealthy Western Europe, people are rationing heat. Some of the most vulnerable turn it off completely. The comfortable classes feel an uncomfortable pinch. Extreme heating bills and ad hoc home insulation are discussed at dinner.

Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, regulates the temperature workplaces. French politicians are photographed wearing turtlenecks and winter jackets indoors, in an awkward attempt to set an example. In Britain, London’s fire chiefs felt it necessary to warn residents against open fires at home.

Germany: Thermostat settings depend on your job

The thermostats in very German workplaces are turned off to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit) in accordance with government regulations. If workers are standing or active, the dial goes down an extra degree. For those doing work that requires “severe” physical activity – using power tools, lifting loads, digging and chopping – the law requires a nippy 12C (54F).

“Each kilowatt-hour saved helps a little out of dependence on Russian gas supplies,” says the new regulation, known as the “Ordinance for securing the energy supply through effective short-term measures.”

Some rooms in public buildings, including common areas where people do not linger, such as halls and corridors, cannot be heated at all. There are exceptions for hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

“In terms of productivity, the employer must also have an interest in the employees not suffering from hypothermia,” Anette Wahl-Wachendorf, vice president of the Association of German Company and Occupational Physicians, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle broadcaster. She recommended hot tea, lunchtime walks, blankets and two pairs of socks.

German officials hope that the public sector will serve as a “good example”. In private homes, the measures are “softer” – lowering the thermostat is encouraged but not required.

However, the same cannot be said for state and privately owned housing blocks, where heating is centrally controlled. Housing associations in Berlin decided to only provide heating to 17C (63F) at night and 20C (68F) during the day.

Jutta Hartmann of the German Tenants Association told RTL news that she sees the move as unnecessary given rising heating costs. “We see no need, as tenants naturally want to save,” she said.

France: 66 degrees, s’il vous plaît

As France unveiled its energy-saving plan for this winter, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said 19C (66F) is “the rule”. She is said to have cited a regulation first introduced in the oil crisis of the 1970s which stipulates that accommodation with central heating must be kept at an average of 19 degrees.

Companies could theoretically face thousands of dollars in fines if they overheat their premises, although there is no sign of the policy being enforced. Similarly, Parisians who like to be warm and cozy while they sleep are unlikely to have the police knocking on their door. The French government relies on the goodwill of its citizens.

“The executive is banking on voluntary austerity,” said French newspaper Le Monde.

Some energy savings are also expected from recently introduced measures to combat climate change, including a ban on outdoor heat lamps on restaurant and cafe terraces. In Paris, terraces crowded during pandemic winters were largely deserted during a cold spell last week.

France has set up an energy shortage warning system for this winter, which will alert residents and businesses when the situation becomes critical. In that case, public authorities will lower the heat in their buildings to 18C (64.4F). Businesses will be asked to lower their indoor temperatures by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) during peak usage hours.

To escape the cold, some Europeans decided to spend long parts of the winter in sunnier parts of the continent, including Spain. But after introducing minimum temperature limits for commercial air conditioning this summer, Spain has now also limited businesses’ heating to – you guessed it – 19C.

Britain: As low as 64.4 Fahrenheit

Britain had its hottest summer on record, at 38C (100F); a balmy November that poppies have begun to bloom; and then, whammo, December was all about freezing rain and snow.

Britain unveiled a public service campaign on Saturday under the slogan “It’s all coming together.” Among the government’s tips: If you turn off radiators when you’re not in a room, you can save 70 pounds ($85) a year. And adjusting boiler settings so that it takes a little longer for a room to reach its target temperature can save 100 pounds ($121).

However, British officials are concerned about people sacrificing their health to save money on heating. The government recommends that people heat rooms they use regularly to between 18C and 21C (64.4F to 69.8F).

“Wearing several thin layers is better at trapping heat than wearing one thick layer,” officials advise, and “having plenty of hot food and drink is also effective in keeping warm .”

Britain is not known for extreme weather, but already this winter a cold snap has sent temperatures below freezing, heightening concerns for the estimated 3 million low-income families struggling to heat their homes.

Amid skyrocketing energy bills, the government decided to step in with subsidies, bringing the average household’s monthly bill to around 208 pounds ($253). But this is still roughly double the cost of last year.

Sarah Chapman, an advocacy manager at the Wandsworth Foodbank in south London, said staff were particularly concerned about those on pre-paid meters – around 4 million people, many of them poor – who have to pay for their energy in advance.

“We literally meet people who have nothing on the meter,” she said. “So the lights go off, the fridge goes off and they lose what little food they have in the fridge anyway. Families live in one room to save on heat and lights. One gentleman has to keep his insulin in the fridge, and it goes off. …The health risks are great.”

Morris reported from Berlin, Noack from Paris and Adam from London. William Booth in London contributed to this report.


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