In recent months, much of the EU energy debate has centred around the slow, painful process of getting 27 member states to agree on a price cap on gas.
But the best and cheapest way to decrease gas prices may be to simply use less of it. In September, the council of 27 EU members agreed to voluntarily reduce gross electricity consumption by 10 percent and a mandatory reduction of five percent during peak hours.
It is, however, not entirely clear how member states plan to achieve this. They are supposed to report their plans to the commissions “as soon as possible after 1 December.” But most of the political energy in national capitals has focused on prices and how to shield households against high energy bills.
What is lacking are concerted efforts to get people and businesses to reduce consumption collectively. “It’s every man for himself,” Olof van der Gaag, founder of the Dutch Sustainable Energy Association (NVDE), a lobbyist for clean power, told EUobserver.
Together with grid operator Tennet, and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, van der Gaag has initiated a weekly ‘energy forecast.’ It’s a tool meant to inspire households and businesses to concentrate heavy energy consumption on days when wind and sun are abundant.
“If more people use electricity intelligently, fewer gas-fired power plants have to produce electricity, which could make a big difference,” van der Gaag said.
It basically means: don’t charge your car or wash your clothes on a cloudy windless day, but wait a bit for the wind to pick up and the clouds to disperse.
According to rough estimates, this could help reduce overall gas use by a few percentage points. Not enough to solve the problem, but it could have a “big impact”, van der Gaag says, on peak demand, reducing stress on the electricity grid.
The Dutch government, not yet an official partner, has expressed interest in helping the project expand. The NVDE is considering plans to increase the weekly coverage to a daily update with localised notifications. Inclusion in the daily national weather forecast would be “ideal” van der Gaag said.
A similar initiative, Ecowatt, was launched in France in 2020, but as prices began to rise over the summer has become much more popular. Forecasts are given daily instead of weekly.
The French plan however is not geared towards saving gas per se but is motivated by an acute worry for winter power cuts, as 26 of its 56 nuclear reactors are offline after cracks and corrosion were discovered in pipes used to cool reactor cores.
If grid operator RTE foresees an electricity shortage, it will launch an ‘Ecowatt red alert’ three days in advance to call on users to reduce consumption.
Although the plans differ in the details, both appeal to the power of collective action to help fight the energy crunch.
Ecowatt is part of a nationwide “sobriety plan,” French president Emmanuel Macron announced in July, with the objective “to smooth out the peaks.”
“We must collectively enter into a logic of sobriety,” he said. This differs from individual measures like insulating homes, which save money but lack the collective element.
Although it can help lower costs for households with variable contracts, that’s not the point. “It doesn’t substantially reduce cost for people individually, but it’s a sort of collective ‘fuck you’ to Putin, and it does help speed up the transition to cleaner energy,” van der Gaag said.
Although the commission has not officially embraced the initiatives, all the information is available and can be “copy-pasted” for free by others, van der Gaag said.
“It engenders a paradigm shift that I think we need,” he said. “We expect people to reduce consumption. This gives them the means to do so collectively.”