Europe’s stifling heat wave—which is set to break temperature records in the UK, France, and elsewhere—couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Electricity prices already are on the rise as Russia chokes off the continent’s supply of natural gas, much of which is used in power plants, which means the cost of running an air conditioner is spiking.
Europe’s deadly energy crisis is arriving early
Europe was already bracing for an energy crisis, but the brunt of it was expected to land in the winter, when natural gas demand is typically highest because of home heating. The heat wave accelerated that timeline, with few good alternatives for generating more electricity at a lower price.
The price of coal is also surging, and many nuclear plants are running below capacity or being closed. European countries are hastily building solar and wind, but have been hampered by rising equipment costs and supply chain delays. Yet, in spite of the heat wave, policymakers are still aiming to use as little natural gas now as possible, in order to refill storage tanks in preparation for winter.
The high cost of raw materials has also eaten the profit margin for the continent’s electric utilities. Germany’s Uniper is begging for a bailout as it faces $10 billion in losses this year, and French authorities this month said they will nationalize the utility Electricity de France in order to keep it afloat.
Between these bailouts and public support for individual households with crippling energy bills, the energy crisis could cost European governments $200 billion this year, according to Bloomberg.
European electricity prices shot up, came down, and are surging again
When Russia invaded Ukraine, average European electricity prices briefly leapt above $500 per megawatt-hour, then leveled out around $180 over the last few months. Now the price is almost $300, more than triple the price at this time last year, according to intelligence firm Rystad Energy. In the UK, average household energy bills for 2022 could exceed $4,000, which would be almost double last year.
High electricity prices are also a dangerous and costly health hazard, the Red Cross warned, to the extent that cooling and heating become unaffordable. Nearly 3,000 people are killed by heat-related illness in Europe annually—a figure that European officials project could increase 10-fold by 2050 as a result of climate change.