How Europe’s Electric Grid Is Coping With the Heat

While it may be small consolation to people sweltering in the heat wave enveloping southern Europe, electric grids in countries in the region like Italy and Spain have so far met the added demand for power for air-conditioning without any extreme price surges.

In a sense, Europe is benefiting from actions taken last year, when soaring natural gas prices resulting from constraints on flows from Russia drove electric power prices to record levels. The European electric grid was also plagued by other problems, including mechanical issues that idled large numbers of France’s nuclear plants.

That experience, along with electric power prices that remain substantially higher than what used to be considered normal, has helped dampen demand for electricity despite the high temperatures, analysts say.

Incentives also remain in place that encourage the use of high-polluting coal- and oil-burning plants for power generation, measures put in place last year to reduce natural gas consumption. “It is a really perverse situation,” said Marco Alvera, chief executive of TES, a company that plans to import hydrogen to Europe for use as a clean fuel.

The increasing amounts of solar power on the grid, especially in Spain, have also helped bolster electricity supplies and moderate prices. Solar power production peaks at midday when both the sun and the need for air-conditioning are most intense. Relatively mild price spikes have been occurring in the afternoon in Italy as the sun fades and people return home and turn up their air-conditioning.

At the same time there have been fewer problems with nuclear power plants in France and other forms of conventional power generation in Europe than there were last year, making more power available.

“The French nuclear situation has improved significantly compared to last year,“ said Luca Urbanucci, the European Union power market analyst at ICIS, a data analytics firm.

Europe’s power grid also has interconnecting cables that allow countries under less heat stress, like Britain, Norway or Switzerland, to feed power to their neighbors.

In particular, Spain is benefiting from investments in solar panels, pumping out about 20 percent more solar power than in the summer of 2022.

“This is why we are not seeing as extreme price spikes as we would have expected otherwise,” said Stefan Konstantinov, senior energy economist at ICIS.

Despite the intense heat, Spain is consuming substantially less natural gas than it did last year.

Of course, if as expected, the extreme heat continues, energy systems may come under further pressure. For instance, nuclear power plants might be forced to shut down because water levels in rivers used for cooling become too low or the water itself becomes too warm.

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