Temperatures are forecast to fall below zero degrees Celsius in several European capitals this week, straining electricity grids already coping with low wind speeds and severe nuclear outages in France. To make matters worse, Russia signaled it intends to keep natural gas flows through a major transit route to Germany limited on Monday after capping supplies over the weekend.
Energy prices have spiraled out of control this year, with European gas prices surging some 600%. As temperatures are forecast to briefly dip below seasonal norms at the start of the week, short-term electricity prices surged. In France, power for delivery on Monday rallied to the highest level since a rare spike in 2009, while Germany prices were the third-highest on record.
Rising prices have fueled inflation, a headache for policymakers already contending with the spread of the coronavirus omicron variant just before the holiday season. Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine could also make things worse, with a potential invasion likely to send prices even higher.
Jeremy Weir, chief executive officer of commodities trader Trafigura Group, last month warned that Europe could experience rolling blackouts in case of a cold winter. And that was before Electricite de France SA said it was halting reactors accounting for 10% of the nation’s nuclear capacity, leaving the region at the mercy of weather at the height of winter in January and February.
With nuclear outages biting, electricity producers will have to use more gas to keep the lights on. But Russia has signaled it may keep flows into Germany via the key Yamal-Europe pipeline capped, potentially forcing Europe to reply on its already depleted gas inventories. Storage sites are only 60% filled, a record low for this time of year.
In auctions on Sunday, just 4% of capacity was allocated to send gas through Germany’s Mallnow station, where the pipeline crossing Belarus and Poland terminates. That compares with about 35% of the capacity that Russia has booked for most days this month. Russia has also opted against booking extra pipeline space to flow more gas through Ukraine on Monday.
Russian gas giant Gazprom PJSC will have the last chance to reserve extra capacity at numerous within-day auctions overnight, potentially averting Monday’s crunch. The surge in prices in Europe has already forced metals smelters and fertilizer producers to curb output, threatening to derail the region’s economic recovery.
While traders expect more liquefied natural gas to come to the rescue due to lower demand in Asia, cargo diversions will take some time and increased arrivals at European ports are unlikely to come before January.