That might sound flippant, and it’s admittedly a rough estimate. But the calculation is conservative and based on what we know today. It doesn’t cover the worst-case scenario, both Russia completely shutting off natural gas supplies to Europe and a colder-than-average winter.
Very few politicians seem to understand the scale of the coming crisis and its costs, with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz being among the few who seem to understand it now. (The others, in many cases, remain distracted by domestic politics.) The European Union has called for an emergency meeting of energy ministers later this month. But that is expected to precede a larger energy-focused heads of government summit before the summer break.
The EU will have to decide on a major energy saving programme, including a public campaign to support it, and make it clear that nations will help each other by sharing what little gas is available. This also means inviting the UK, Switzerland and Norway to the Brussels table.
As natural gas and power futures prices continue to climb, more European utilities and energy retailers will struggle. Take Germany, for example, where the one-year power forward contract jumped last week to an all-time high of more than 350 euros ($352) per megawatt-hour, up 750% from at an average of 41 euros between 2010 and 2020. Natural gas prices for 2023 in Europe have also increased recently.
The only chance of survival for utilities is to pass on the huge jump in wholesale prices to their customers. But that only moves the bailout down the chain, as households and businesses would then face unaffordable bills and need government help.
Ultimately, taxpayers will bear the cost – either directly and immediately, through higher retail electricity and gas prices, or later, and over time, through higher taxes to pay for bailouts. European governments should be upfront about the costs: they can win the argument that it is money well spent to stop Vladimir Putin.
Let’s start with the utility side. Germany’s Uniper SE, the biggest buyer of Russian gas, has all but failed. He recently asked for a government bailout and preliminary estimates put the bill at 10 billion euros. This will likely turn out to be conservative. Electricité de France SA has failed as a reliable generator of electricity and needs help. Paris, which already holds a majority stake, will renationalise the rest, at a cost of at least 8 billion euros.
And Uniper and EDF are just the tip of the iceberg – two of dozens of utilities serving more than 200 million homes across the EU and UK. The majority may weather the storm. But many more are going to need help. At the very least, they will need state-guaranteed loans and other government guarantees to buy super-expensive gas on the spot market to replace the loss of Russian gas. At worst, they will have to be nationalized, if only temporarily.
State-guaranteed loans are not trivial. Earlier this month, the Czech government granted CEZ, a state-controlled utility, an emergency loan of 3 billion euros. It’s for a company that serves a country of just over 10 million people. The German government, through its state-owned bank KwF, has already granted 15 billion euros in loans to the country’s gas market operator to buy gas and fill storage before winter. Whether these loans will ever be repaid is a question mark.
Now let’s look at households. The United Kingdom is paradigmatic of the problem. In February, London announced a multi-billion pound bailout to cushion the impact of a 54% increase in the country’s retail energy cap – a limit on how much utilities can charge families per year for electricity and gas. At the time, the price cap went from 1,277 pounds ($1,512) to 1,971 pounds per year, effective April 1. From October, the price cap is expected to rise to around £3,300 per year. The nearly 70% increase is expected to be announced in early August.
Yet the median annual pre-tax household income in the UK is £31,770. This means that a typical household will spend more than 10% of its income on electricity and gas — this is the standard definition of energy poverty. Without government money, families won’t pay their bills, creating a debt problem for their energy providers. Either London bails out families or it has to bail out public services.
The likely scale of UK government aid? Earlier this year, a £693 price cap increase triggered a £9.1bn payout. Bottom-of-the-envelope calculations suggest the upcoming roughly £1,300 increase would trigger a £17billion bailout.
Consider these well-known examples, and a $200 billion bill in European bailouts, nationalizations, state-guaranteed loans and the like doesn’t seem so flippant anymore.
And the problem can get worse very quickly. Again, consider Uniper. Because Russian President Vladimir Putin cut Germany’s gas supply by around 60%, Uniper loses around 30 million euros every day having to buy the same gas on the spot market. That’s around 10 billion euros a year – roughly the cost of what the German government currently plans to spend to keep it afloat. If Putin completely cuts off the flow, daily utility losses will rise to around 100 million euros per day, or more than 35 billion per year. The government will have to provide this sum if it wants to maintain people power.
If utilities are allowed to pass on higher gas costs to consumers, Goldman Sachs estimates that European households will have to pay 470 euros per month for electricity and gas, up 290% from the typical cost in mid-2020. It’s clearly unaffordable for many, perhaps most, and a much bigger bailout will be needed to help consumers get by.
Next winter will be expensive. The only question now is how much will it cost.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Javier Blas is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. A former Bloomberg News reporter and commodities editor at the Financial Times, he is co-author of “The World for Sale: Money, Power and the Traders Who Barter the Earth’s Resources.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion