Europe’s scorching summer puts unexpected strain on energy supply
By Jason Horowitz
In a Nordic land famous for its steep fjords, where water is very nearly a way of life, Sverre Eikeland scaled down the boulders that form the walls of one of Norway’s chief reservoirs, past the driftwood that protruded like something caught in the dam’s teeth, and stood on dry land that should have been deeply submerged.
“You see the band where the vegetation stops,” said Eikeland, 43, the chief operating officer of Agder Energi, pointing at a stark, arid line 50 feet above the Skjerkevatn reservoir’s surface. “That’s where the water level should be.”
“We are not familiar with drought,” he added with a shrug. “We need water.”
It has been a summer of heat and drought across Europe, affecting nearly every part of the economy and even its normally cool regions, a phenomenon aggravated by man-made climate change. France has been scarred by vast wildfires, and its Loire Valley is so dry the river can be crossed in places on foot. The Rhine in Germany is inches deep in parts, paralyzing essential commerce and stranding riverboat cruises. Italy is drier than at any time since 1800, and the growers of its iconic rice used for risotto now risk losing their harvest.
But perhaps the drought’s most surprising impact can be found in Norway’s usually drenched south, where sheep have gotten stuck in exposed mud banks and salmon have lacked enough water to migrate upriver. Hydropower reservoir supplies — responsible for 90% of Norway’s electricity as well as electricity exports to several of its neighbors — have sunk to the lowest point in 25 years, causing shortages that have driven up both prices and political tensions.
The summer’s extreme heat and devastating drought, coming on top of Russia’s weaponization of natural gas exports — in response to European Union sanctions for its war in Ukraine — have all combined to expose the vulnerabilities of Europe’s energy system in unexpected places and unanticipated ways.
In France, the warmed rivers have threatened the use of nuclear reactors. In Germany, the Rhine is too low to transport the coal to which the country is resorting in order to make up for lost Russian gas. And in Britain, the driest July in almost 90 years ignited wildfires around London and left thousands of northern homes without electricity.
“We call it a perfect storm,” said Steffen Syvertsen, the CEO of Agder Energi, who was in nearby Arendal, where the country’s political and industry leaders gathered to debate whether the “Energy Crisis,” as the local media now call it, required a revisiting of electricity export deals with the European Union and Britain, or new subsidies for Norwegians to alleviate skyrocketing prices.
In addition to the Russian gas cuts, a spike in demand as the economy emerges from the pandemic, a failure to add other renewables like wind to its energy portfolio, and the worst drought in years have sent Norway’s electricity prices to record levels, especially in the more heavily populated south.
While Norway is eager to integrate into the European market, the resource-rich country, which is a major exporter of gas, is under pressure to keep more of its energy for itself. “The best way to solve this crisis and get energy security is to as fast as possible be independent from Russian gas,” said Syvertsen. “But that is a big task.”
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store told the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, during a visit to Oslo that while Norway would keep its commitments for delivery of electricity to the EU market, it could not spare any extra exports of gas.
And Germany needs more gas. The severe drought there has reignited talk of investing in nuclear power and has dried up the waterways crucial for transporting coal.
Germany’s coal-fired power plants dot the Rhine’s banks from Duisburg in the West to Karlsruhe close to France, but the shallow water level means that large, coal-bearing cargo ships can carry only about a third of their capacity.
Last week, Uniper, a major utility, announced that it would have to lower output from two of its coal-burning power plants because not enough coal could be brought up the Rhine to fire them at full potential.
On Wednesday, the official level of the Rhine at Emmerich am Rhein, a town just upstream from the Dutch border, fell below zero, shattering a record set in October 2018. Boats that run too deep to make it up to the higher reaches of the Rhine must now stop to offload some coal and continue on with a lighter load. Smaller boats have sought to pick up the slack, clogging up the waterways.
“We have a lot more ships on the quay wall,” said Pascal van Berk, a dispatcher at Orsay coal harbor just north of Duisburg, where a sprinkler system runs around the clock to suppress coal dust and workers load 150 train carriages of coal to carry to already overtaxed rail yards. “I have a lot more to do.”
The most severe drought on record in France has also cost the country’s energy production, as nuclear plants responsible for more than 70% of the country’s electricity had to cut down activity temporarily to avoid discharging dangerously warm water into rivers.
Many of France’s 56 nuclear plants were already offline for maintenance issues. But the rivers that cool reactors have become so warm as a result of the punishing heat that strict rules designed to protect wildlife have prevented the flushing of the even warmer water from the plants back into the waterways.
France’s nuclear power regulator granted temporary waivers this month allowing five plants to continue discharging warmed water into rivers out of what it called “a public necessity.”
In Britain, the extreme heat that turned lush fields to straw has led power grid operators to hire more workers amid fears of electricity shortages.
In Norway, a winter without much snow and an exceptionally dry spring, including the driest April in 122 years, reduced water levels in lakes and rivers. Shallow waters in Mjosa, the country’s largest lake, kept its famed Skibladner paddle wheel boat tied up at port and prompted city officials in Oslo to send out text messages urging people to take shorter showers and avoid watering lawns.
“Do that for Oslo,” read the text message, “so that we’ll still have water for the most important things in our lives.” In May, Statnett SF, the operator of the national electricity grid, raised the alarm about shortfalls.
But the skies offered no relief and this month, as the country’s hydro reservoirs — especially in the south — approached what Energy Minister Terje Aasland has called “very low” levels, hydropower producers cut output to save water for the coming winter.
The reservoirs were about 60% full, about 10% less than the average over the previous two decades, according to data from the energy regulator.
Southern Norway, which holds more than a third of the country’s reservoirs, is dotted with red barns on green fields and fishing boats along the coast. On a stream in the Agder region, a sign put up by the energy company, like a relic from another time, warned, “The water level can rise suddenly and without warning.”
But recent months have shown that there is danger in the water level dropping, too. Reservoirs had dwindled to their lowest point in 20 years, at just 46% full. One, Rygene, was so low as to force the temporary closing of the plant. On Tuesday, the rainstorms returned, but the ground was so dry, Eikeland said as he surveyed the basin, that the earth “drinks up all the water” and the water levels in the reservoirs barely rose.