How European countries are rationing heat as energy prices rise

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BRUSSELS — How low have you set the thermostat? That’s the question of the hour across this chilly continent.

Nearly 10 months into Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, with temperatures dropping and the cost of power soaring, Europeans are being pushed to lower their settings. For some, it is a desperate bid to cut exorbitant heating bills to make the rent. For others, it is a point of pride: to ensure that Europe doesn’t face fuel shortages this winter, or to symbolically stick it to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The energy situation in the European Union and Britain pales in comparison with what’s happening in Ukraine. Russian forces have systematically targeted energy infrastructure, taking out the substations and transformers needed to keep the lights and the heat on, and leaving millions of Ukrainian civilians shivering as their country is relentlessly shelled.

But the fallout beyond Ukraine is significant. Even in relatively wealthy Western Europe, people are rationing heat. Some of the most vulnerable are turning it off completely. The comfortable classes are feeling an uncomfortable pinch. Extreme heating bills and ad-hoc home insulation are discussed at dinner parties.

Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, is regulating the temperature in workplaces. French politicians are being photographed wearing turtlenecks and winter jackets indoors, in an awkward bid to set an example. In Britain, London’s fire chiefs felt it necessary to warn residents against having open fires at home.

Germany: Thermostat settings depend on your job

The thermostats in many German workplaces have been turned down to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit) in line with government regulations. If workers are standing or active, the dial goes down an extra degree. For those doing jobs requiring “heavy” physical activity — using power tools, heaving loads, digging and chopping — the law mandates a nippy 12C (54F).

“Every kilowatt-hour saved helps a little bit out of the dependency on Russian gas supplies,” says the new regulation, known as the “Ordinance for securing the energy supply through short-term effective measures.”

Some rooms in public buildings, including common areas where people don’t linger such as halls and corridors, can’t be heated at all. There are exceptions for hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

“In terms of productivity, the employer must also have an interest in the employees not suffering from hypothermia,” Anette Wahl-Wachendorf, vice president of the Association of German Company and Work Physicians, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle broadcaster. She recommended hot tea, lunchtime walks, blankets and two pairs of socks.

German officials hope the public sector will serve as a “good example.” In private homes, the measures are more “gentle” — lowering the thermostat is encouraged but not required.

The same cannot be said for government and privately owned housing blocks, however, where heating is controlled centrally. Housing associations in Berlin have decided to provide heating only to 17C (63F) at night and 20C (68F) during the day.

Jutta Hartmann of the German Tenants’ Association told RTL news that she saw the move as unnecessary given rising heating costs. “We don’t see any need, since tenants naturally want to save,” she said.

France: 66 degrees, s’il vous plaît

When France unveiled its energy-savings plan for this winter, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said 19C (66F) is “the rule.” She was apparently citing a regulation that was first introduced in the oil crisis of the 1970s and stipulates that accommodations with central heating should be kept at an average of 19 degrees.

Companies could theoretically face thousands of dollars in fines if they overheat their premises, though there is no sign the policy is being enforced. Similarly, Parisians who like to be warm and toasty as they sleep are unlikely to have the police knocking on their door. The French government is relying on the goodwill of its citizens.

“The executive is banking on voluntary sobriety,” the French newspaper Le Monde commented.

Some energy savings are also expected from recently introduced measures to combat climate change, including a ban on outdoor heat lamps on restaurant and cafe terraces. In Paris, terraces that were crowded during pandemic winters were largely deserted during a cold spell last week.

France has set up an energy-shortage warning system for this winter, which would alert residents and businesses when the situation becomes critical. In that case, public authorities would turn down the heat in their buildings to 18C (64.4F). Businesses would be asked to lower their indoor temperatures by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) during peak consumption hours.

To escape the cold, some Europeans have decided to spend extended stretches of the winter in sunnier parts of the continent, including Spain. But after imposing minimum temperature limits for commercial air-conditioning this summer, Spain has now also capped businesses’ heating at — you guessed it — 19C.

Britain: As low as 64.4 Fahrenheit

Britain had its hottest summer on record, topping 38C (100F); a balmy November that saw poppies begin to bloom; and then, whammo, December was all about freezing rain and snow.

On Saturday, Britain unveiled a public service campaign under the slogan “It all adds up.” Among the government’s tips: Turning down radiators when you’re not in a room can save 70 pounds ($85) a year. And adjusting boiler settings so that it takes a bit longer for a room to hit its target temperature can save 100 pounds ($121).

British officials are worried, though, about people sacrificing their health to save money on heating. The government recommends that people heat rooms they use frequently to between 18C and 21C (64.4F to 69.8F).

“Wearing a few thin layers is better at trapping heat than wearing one thick layer,” officials advise, and “having plenty of hot food and drinks is also effective for keeping warm.”

Britain is not known for extreme weather, but already this winter, a cold snap sent temperatures below freezing, deepening concern for the estimated 3 million low-income families that are struggling to heat their homes.

Amid eye-popping energy bills, the government decided to step in with subsidies, bringing the average household’s monthly bill to about 208 pounds ($253). But that is still roughly double the cost from last year.

Sarah Chapman, an advocacy manager at the Wandsworth Foodbank in south London, said staff members are particularly worried for those on pre-payment meters — about 4 million people, many of them poor — who have to pay for their energy in advance.

“We’re literally meeting people who have got nothing on the meter,” she said. “So the lights go off, the fridge goes off and they lose what little food they have in the fridge anyway. Families are living in one room to save on heat and lights. One gentleman needs to keep his insulin in the fridge, and it goes off. …The health risks are huge.”

Morris reported from Berlin, Noack from Paris and Adam from London. William Booth in London contributed to this report.

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