Eiffel Tower turns lights out early to save on bills - how Europe is reacting to the energy crisis

A woman walks in the Jardin des Tuileries, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard)
The Eiffel Tower in Paris is set to turn its lights off early to save energy (file photo) Credit: AP/PA

As Europe stares down a winter energy crisis, businesses say they can't just "turn off the lights and make our guests sit in the dark" even as bills rise by 750%.

But some are already winding down their energy use in a bid to curb soaring costs.

Hungarian burger chain Zing Burger has already cut down the use of its grills to only what is necessary, and uses motion detectors to turn off lights in storage rooms.

But the 15 stores operated by the burger chain still face crippling energy bills.

And as Russia chokes natural gas supplies to Europe after invading Ukraine, the continent's ability to get through the winter may depend on just how cold it gets.

The lights of the Eiffel Tower are already being turned off earlier than normal, and shop windows across Europe are going dark to save energy.

A worker cooks burgers at Zing Burger store in Budapest. Credit: AP

High prices mean households and businesses are trying to use less heat and electricity, but are finding that cutting back only shaves a little off their bills.

Europe's governments are rolling out relief and have been able to bolster natural gas storage.

But analysts say Vladimir Putin still has leverage - with energy prices high and supplies tight.

In poorer parts of eastern Europe, people are stocking up on firewood.

While in wealthier Germany, the wait for an energy-saving heat pump can take half a year. And businesses don't know how much more they can cut back.

The question is whether support packages will be enough to avoid government-imposed rationing and rolling blackouts.

Europe's dependence on Russian energy has turned the war into an economic crisis fuelled by demand for energy that is in short supply.

Prices have risen to record highs in recent months and fluctuating wildly.

Lights on the Eiffel Tower are now turned off an hour earlier in a bid to save energy. Credit: PA

In response, governments have worked hard to find new supplies and conserve energy, with gas storage facilities now 86% full ahead of the winter heating season - beating the goal of 80% by November.

They have also committed to lower gas use by 15%.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this month that early preparations mean Europe’s biggest economy is “now in a position in which we can go bravely and courageously into this winter, in which our country will withstand this.”

“No one could have said that three, four, five months ago, or at the beginning of this year,” he added.

Even if there is gas this winter, high prices already are pushing people and businesses to use less, and forcing some energy-intensive factories like glassmakers to close.

Bakers like Andreas Schmitt in Frankfurt, Germany, are facing the hard reality that limiting usage only goes so far.

Baker Andreas Schmitt shows a loaf of bread in one of his branches in Neu Isenburg, Germany. Credit: AP

Mr Schmitt is heating fewer ovens at his 25 Ernst Cafe bakeries, running them longer to spare start-up energy, narrowing his pastry selection to ensure ovens run full, and storing less dough to cut refrigeration costs.

That might save 5-10% off an energy bill that is set to rise from 300,000 euros per year, to 1.1 million next year.

“It's not going to shift the world," he said. The bulk of his costs is “the energy required to get dough to bread, and that is a given quantity of energy.”

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Mr Schmitt, head of the local bakers' guild, said some small bakeries are contemplating giving up.

Government help will be key in the short term, he said, while a longer-term solution involves reforming energy markets themselves.

Europe is targeting both, though the spending required may be unsustainable.

Nations have allocated 500 billion euros to ease high utility bills since September 2021, according to an analysis from the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, and they are bailing out utilities that can’t afford to buy gas to fulfil their contracts.

A person holding an energy bill. Credit: PA

Governments have lined up additional gas supply from pipelines running to Norway and Azerbaijan and ramped up their purchase of expensive liquefied natural gas that comes by ship, largely from the US.

At the same time, the EU is weighing drastic interventions like taxing energy companies' windfall profits and revamping electricity markets so natural gas costs play less of a role in determining power prices.

But as countries scramble to replace Russian fossil fuels and even reactivate polluting coal-fired power plants, environmentalists and the EU itself say renewables are the way out long term.

Many governments have dismissed Russia as an energy supplier, amid Western opposition to Putin's war in Ukraine.

But some Russian gas is still flowing, and a hard winter could undermine public support for Ukraine in some countries. There have already been protests in places like Czechia and Belgium.

In Bulgaria, the poorest of the EU’s 27 members, surging energy costs are forcing families to cut extra spending ahead of winter to ensure there is enough money to buy food and medicine.

More than a quarter of Bulgaria's 7 million people can’t afford to heat their home, according to EU statistics office Eurostat, the highest in the 27-nation bloc due to poorly insulated buildings and low incomes.

Nearly half of households use firewood in winter as the cheapest and most accessible fuel, but rising demand and galloping inflation have driven prices above last year’s levels.

In the capital, Sofia, where almost half a million households have heating provided by central plants, many sought other options after a 40% price increase was announced.

Babushka Artisanal Bakery in Budapest has raised its prices by 10% to keep up with rapidly rising costs of energy. Credit: AP

Meanwhile, businesses are trying to stay afloat without alienating customers. Klara Aurell, owner of two Prague restaurants, said she’s done all she can to conserve energy.

“We use LED bulbs, we turn the lights off during the day, the heating is only when it gets really cold and we use it only in a limited way,” she said. “We also take measures to save water and use energy-efficient equipment. We can hardly do anything else. The only thing to remain is to increase prices. That’s how it is.”

The gourmet Babushka Artisanal Bakery in an affluent district of Budapest has had to raise prices by 10%. The bakery used less air conditioning despite Hungary's hottest summer on record and is ensuring the ovens don't run without bread inside.

While it has enough traffic to stay open for now, further jumps in energy costs could threaten its viability, owner Eszter Roboz said.

“A twofold increase in energy costs still fits into the operation of our business and into our calculations," she said. “But in the case of a three- to fourfold increase, we will really need to think about whether we can continue this.”