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Cold dark days

Europe braces for winter without Russian gas

A person walks on a frosty path in a park in Berlin, Germany. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Cold dark days
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Giuseppe and Michele Lamberti bustled around their small restaurant on a recent weekend evening, serving up plates of steamed mussels and balsamic octopus salad to tourists. Most are visiting the Italian seaside village of Santa Margherita Ligure from nearby Genoa. The cousins and business ­partners dreamed of opening Levante Restaurant for years, working hard and saving their money until they found the right place. Finally, they settled on a charming spot under arches where local fishermen once stored their boats. They opened their doors in early 2020.

Their dream-come-true barely ­survived pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, but this past summer Levante finally began to recover. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and the repercussions of sanctions on Russian oil and gas began to trickle down to Santa Margherita Ligure. Last year the ­cousins paid 2,150 euros ($2,237) for the restaurant’s August power bill. This August, Giuseppe and Michele got a bill for 6,000 euros ($6,242)—an increase of 279 percent. Restaurant owners are used to seasonal fluctuations: In Santa Margherita Ligure winter is the slow season. But with those exorbitant power bills and the rising cost of ingredients, Giuseppe and Michele now open the restaurant each weekend fearing it will be their last.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Union imposed sanctions and gas prices skyrocketed. Until this year, Italy got 40 percent of its gas from Russia. But even in European nations less dependent on Russian energy, businesses and residents are grappling with similarly high utility bills. And while government emergency measures across the continent have forestalled an energy catastrophe for now, most Europeans are tightening their belts and putting on extra sweaters in anticipation of a colder, pricier future.

When the war began, the Italian government quickly signed agreements with countries like Algeria for alternative gas supplies and filled storage facilities. But that sudden demand from Italy and other countries pushed prices higher. For now the storage tanks are full, and Italy says it has enough to get through this winter. “The problem is prices,” said Roberto Cingolani, an energy adviser to the Italian government. “We will not be able to take away the suffering of families and businesses.” Energy analysts say that while 8 percent of Italian families had difficulty meeting or paying for their energy needs in 2020, that number has jumped to 36 percent in 2022.

That’s the bite Giuseppe and Michele are feeling. They know they’re not the only ones struggling with rising costs. “Families are suffering a lot too,” Michele said. “Wages aren’t increasing, and if we raise prices too high, we risk that no one will come out to eat. It’s hard to balance.”

People burn energy bills in protest in Naples, Italy.

People burn energy bills in protest in Naples, Italy. Marco Cantile/Alamy

Meanwhile Italy has pledged to curb overall gas consumption by 15 percent. Public awareness campaigns encourage Italians to take shorter showers and use economy modes on energy-heavy appliances like washing machines and dishwashers. Officials waited to turn on heating systems in public buildings, and they plan to turn them off earlier in the spring. They’ve also turned down public thermostats to 66 degrees Fahrenheit and encouraged residents to do the same. In an effort to save money on heating costs, some companies are having employees work from home—after spending the past year trying to get them back in the office.

Across the continent, stores have dimmed the lights and are closing earlier. Towns have turned off electronic advertising, and some cities have decided to forgo lighted Christmas decorations as each community tries to figure out the best way to save electricity and money. Berlin has stopped lighting its monuments and fountains at night, and the lights at the Eiffel Tower in Paris turn off an hour earlier.

The iconic attraction isn’t the only thing in France facing a darkened future. This fall, the government started preparing the country for rolling blackouts. That would mean cutting the ­electricity for two hours at a time in some regions to relieve pressure on the network. When the war began, France seemed better situated than most other countries because it imported less Russian gas and gets 70 percent of its energy from nuclear power plants. But going into fall, 26 of those reactors were still offline because of pandemic-related maintenance delays and problems with corrosion. EDF, France’s nationalized power operator, promised to have them back up and running before winter, but a late-November report from the nation’s power grid operator was less optimistic about the ability to produce enough power to avoid cuts in January. Officials say the country is safe until Christmas, but “our main fear is a harsh winter, the kind that only happens once every 10 years.”

A hotel owner in Italy shows the near 600 percent price increase in an electricity bill compared with the same month last year.

A hotel owner in Italy shows the near 600 percent price increase in an electricity bill compared with the same month last year. Michel Porro/Getty Images

Europe enjoyed an unseasonably warm autumn this year, which made the threat of cold less imminent. But with winter now well underway, Europeans are starting to worry about heating. In many stores, portable heaters and generators are scarce. Even those who don’t heat directly with electricity or gas are feeling the pain. Wood pellets are another widely used source of fuel, but transportation costs and hoarding have doubled their price.

Danny Rybakowski lives in Hamburg, Germany, with his girlfriend, Lea Roach, and their 18-month-old son. They used to spend about 500 euros per month on utilities for their apartment, but those bills have now nearly doubled. Always frugal, Rybakowski and Roach are even more careful with their electricity and water use. Roach often leaves the car at home and does errands by bike instead. “Our generation has never gone through a crisis like this,” Rybakowski said.

In another part of Hamburg, Niklas and Lissi Meyer bought their first house early in 2022. When Ukrainian refugees began arriving at their church, they opened their home to a family of five. Now, with the energy crisis unfolding and more people in their home, their gas bill has shot up to 600 euros ($615) a month. The extra costs have tested their resolve, but the German government provides an allowance for refugee hosts that helps cover higher bills. Hosting Ukrainian refugees is also a reminder of the ­reason energy bills are high, and it strengthens the resolve of western Europeans to end dependence on Russian oil.

Still, for most western Europeans, exorbitant electricity bills and the ­possibility of winter blackouts are an inconvenience, however major. Governments have promised help, and most people know they’ll be able to get by. But in nations without as many resources, the situation is more serious. Moldova, Europe’s poorest nation, is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas, and Russian-controlled supplier Gazprom has reduced deliveries by half. Gas prices rose 600 percent over the past year, households are spending over 70 percent of their incomes on gas and electricity bills, and Moldovan President Maia Sandu recently warned that her country risks running out of gas and electricity completely.

More than 30 Western governments banded together late this fall to pledge aid. Moldova sits between Ukraine and Romania. With under 3 million citizens, it has hosted more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other European country. Sandu says Russia cut gas deliveries to punish Moldova’s condemnation of the war.

Our generation has never gone through a crisis like this.

Poland is also Ukraine’s next-door neighbor, and while the nation has seen its share of hard times, Poles say they can’t recall another period in their lifetimes when everything cost so much. Wojciech, a former taxi driver who gave only his first name, hung up his keys this year due to the spiraling cost of gas and car repairs. “Everything is getting more expensive—services, clothes, gasoline, apartment rentals,” he said. “In supermarkets, food prices have increased by 50 percent in the past six months. Many people are leaving to work in other European countries for the money to live in Poland.” Wojciech is one of them. In an attempt to curb inflation, Poland announced it would freeze electricity prices for households, but many businesses say that without similar protection, they’ll have to close.

It’s that kind of government aid that Giuseppi and Michele Lamberti are waiting for as well. They’ve applied to pay their August bill in installments, but the power company only offers that concession for one bill at a time. “In two months, we will receive an even more expensive bill, and we’ll have to pay that one along with the installment of the previous one,” Giuseppe said. “We don’t know what to do, but the problem is so widespread that something will have to happen.”

—with reporting from Mirjana Babloyan in Hamburg, Germany, Evgeny Kosykh in Krakow, Poland, and Chiara Lamberti in Rome

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is WORLD’s global desk chief and European reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family.



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