Last week, France 1-year forward electricity prices crossed for the first time ever the level of €1,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh). Before the crisis, anything above €75-100 per MWh was considered as expensive. Three main options are on the table : targeted compensatory measures for low-income households, applying the ‘Iberian exception’ to the entire EU (temporarily decoupling the price of gas from that of electricity) and reforming more fundamentally the European electricity market. There is no easy answer. Each of these options has downfalls. In our view, the energy crisis is here to stay. The world of cheap energy is over. We have entered into a brave new world of high inflation and high energy prices.
An unbearable cost : According to the calculations of the Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel, EU governments have allocated almost €280bn to help companies and households to cope with higher energy bills since September 2021. In nominal terms, the largest European economies allocated the most funding (Germany €66bn, Italy €49bn and France €44bn). In percentage of GDP (which is a better way to compare), the financial cushion deployed is the largest in Greece (3.7 %), Lithuania (3.6 %) and Italy (2.8 %). This cannot last forever. Several countries are looking to reduce financial support. They want to implement a targeted approach to mostly help low-income households. In France, the government capped energy prices in 2022 (gas prices were frozen at the levels of Autumn 2021 and electricity prices increased only by 4 % this year for households). But this is costly (around €20bn – this is about half of the annual budget of the French ministry of Education). Based on current energy prices, expect the cost to be close to €40bn for this year. In light of higher interest rates and risks that massive financial stimulus further fuels inflation, we believe that many European governments will follow the pace of the French’s. They will decide to downsize the financial package aimed to cushion the energy crisis. On top of that, several EU countries are embattled with the need to bailout utilities at risk of insolvency (Germany’s Uniper and two Vienna municipal utilities, for instance). This is only unfolding now.
Electricity market intervention is back on the agenda : Yesterday, the president of the European Commission (EC), Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen acknowledged the EU electricity market is no longer functioning. This is an understatement. There are mostly two options on the table. Both will be discussed at the upcoming emergency meeting of 9 September. The first option is to propose that the entire EU apply the ‘Iberian exception’ to set electricity prices. In mid-April 2022, the EC agreed that Spain and Portugal create a temporary mechanism to decouple the price of gas from that of electricity for a period of 12 months. Concretely, the price of gas was capped to an average of €50 per megawatt-hour. This resulted in electricity bills being halved for about 40 % of Spanish and Portuguese consumers with regulated rates. This could be applied at the EU scale. This is supported by Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and Portugal especially. However, this is far from being perfect. It led to significant leakage – basically a surge in power exports to France. In other words, a lot of the subsidy actually ends up in France. In addition, prices continue to increase at a speedy rate for 60 % of consumers. The second option is to separate the wholesale power market into two segments : a mandatory pool for low-variable cost technologies (wind, solar, nuclear, for instance) and a conventional market for fossil condensing plants. This proposal is pushed forward by Greece. This is a more fundamental reform of the EU electricity market. But there are several downsides, especially regarding how existing long-term contracts will be treated. Much more emergency meetings will be required before a coherent approach will be approved. Don’t expect major decisions to be announced next week.
The nuclear option : In our view, the European energy crisis is an opportunity to rethink policy stance on nuclear power. Last week, several non-partisan organizations launched a petition to prevent Switzerland from leaving nuclear power in 2027, as scheduled. This decision was initially taken in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima crisis (Japan). According to the July data from the World Nuclear Association, France and the United Kingdom are the two main European countries with the most nuclear capacity under construction. But others don’t seem to embrace this option. In Germany, the Greens prefer to restart coal-fired power stations rather than rethinking the nuclear exit plan. This is puzzling. Nuclear power is not without issues (see corrosion issues in France nuclear reactors). But it guarantees energy independence and lower energy prices in the long-run. While Asia is embracing nuclear power (South Korea is reversing nuclear phaseout and China is accelerating its huge buildout in reactors, for instance), we fear that the EU will still be reluctant to bet on nuclear for ideological reasons. Like it or not, nuclear energy is our best option at the moment to reduce dependence on expensive fossil energy and move forward fast with the green transition.