Europe’s Heat Waves Force Shift Back to Coal and Natural Gas
Record temperatures and lack of rainfall are making rivers low and hot, interfering with hydroelectric and nuclear power generation
By Nick Kostov and Sam Schechner, WSJ
July 28, 2022 7:03 am ET
This summer’s intense heat waves in Europe are helping make a bad energy problem worse.
High temperatures, combined with low rainfall in many parts of Europe, are both boosting demand for power and making some of it—particularly hydroelectric and nuclear power—more difficult to generate. That is forcing utilities to burn more coal and gas to keep up, complicating the continent’s efforts to cut back on Russian natural gas as Russian President Vladimir Putin is slowly turning off the spigot.
The need to resort to fossil fuels is also complicating the continent’s goals for cutting carbon emissions that scientists say are boosting global temperatures—presaging what could become a positive feedback loop with higher temperatures that further boost emissions.
“You need to increase gas and coal generation to meet increased demand,” said Fabian Rønningen, an analyst at Rystad Energy, a research and consulting firm. “That’s adding more carbon to the atmosphere, which is making the problem worse than in the first place.”
Europe has suffered through some of its hottest weather on record this month, with record highs in parts of the U.K. and blistering heat scorching forests in France, Spain and elsewhere.
Average temperatures in Europe rose faster than the global average between 2012 and 2021, a trend that is expected to continue through the end of the century, according to the European Environment Agency.
An air conditioner outside a London pub. The U.K. reached a record temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit last week.
PHOTO: AARON CHOWN/ZUMA PRESS
While energy consumption in Europe is usually lower in the summer because of longer daylight hours and clement temperatures, very high temperatures tend to reduce the gap. Power consumption rose as much as 10% in Germany during parts of the heat wave, analysts say. Underscoring the impact of strained supplies and higher demands, Germany at times withdrew gas from its storage facilities earlier this month, rather than adding to them in preparation for higher usage during the winter.
In France, the Réseau de Transport d’Électricité, which manages the country’s power grid, says that once the temperatures reach about 25 degrees Celsius—equivalent to 77 degrees Fahrenheit—the use of fans and air conditioners rises sharply. In a heat wave, the increase is marked. “It’s as if a city the size of Bordeaux were added to the grid for each additional degree” Celsius during a heat wave, an RTE spokesman said. The Bordeaux metropolitan area has a population of just under one million people.
“The heat wave made a fairly bad situation extraordinarily bad,” said Henning Gloystein, director of energy, climate and resources at Eurasia Group, a consulting firm.
Despite the cut to gas supplies, energy companies have been unable to increase enough production from other major energy sources, analysts say. Many French nuclear plants are out of commission because of a corrosion issue. Wind power has been low in some places this summer. And hydroelectric power generation so far this year is down more than 20% in the first half compared with the same period last year, according to a Rystad Energy estimate.
Higher demand during the heat wave was in part offset by an increase in production of solar energy, with output at an record across the 27 EU countries two weeks ago, analysts said. In Germany, for instance, solar generation in July so far is up more than 30% compared with a year earlier, according to data from ENTSO-E, Europe’s electricity grid operator.
The London underground network saw disruptions and closures during the U.K. heat wave.
PHOTO: JOSE SARMENTO MATOS/BLOOMBERG NEWS
But in many places, the amount of solar energy on the grid hasn’t so far been enough to offset the declines in hydroelectric power. In Norway, Europe’s biggest producer of hydropower-based electricity, producers have cut output to save water for the winter. “It has been one of the worst years for hydropower in Norway,” said Mr. Rønningen. “Storage levels in Norwegian dams and reservoirs are close to all-time lows,” he said. A drought in Spain and Italy means their hydro production is down sharply this year compared with last year, while low river levels in France and Germany also have hit production, ENTSO-E data show.
Four of the remaining nuclear reactors that France has operational nearly had to further reduce their output during last week’s heat wave because of environmental regulations aimed at protecting river wildlife. Under the French rules, plants that use river water to cool need to reduce their output when the river’s temperature rises above a certain level to prevent water that is too hot from re-entering the rivers. But four plants, including three on the Rhone river and one at the mouth of the Garonne, were given an exception to keep generating at full capacity because of the extra demand on the power grid.
Europeans now are trying to prepare for future energy shortages by promising to cut their energy consumption.
Firefighters battled blazes across Europe as temperatures in parts of the continent rose to 115 degrees Fahrenheit and dry conditions helped the fires to spread quickly. Thousands were evacuated from their homes. Photo: Lorena Sopana/Zuma Press
On Tuesday, French retailers set a goal of cutting their energy use by 10% in the next two years, and promised, beginning this fall, to dim their lights during times of peak energy use, and to reduce indoor heating close to checkout aisles, near the doors.
In Germany, the economy ministry led by Green politician Robert Habeck launched a campaign to encourage Germans to save energy this summer, including by reducing their shower time to a maximum of five minutes and lowering the water temperature. The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for instance, has dimmed street lighting and switched off the lights on historic buildings such as the town hall, cathedral and museums. Officials there also are switching off some fountains and lowering the water temperature at municipal swimming pools and outdoor pool showers.
“Especially now in the summer months you can really do something to save energy,” the city’s mayor Eva Weber said in a video message to local citizens earlier this month.
Tom Fairless contributed to this article