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Europeans accuse Putin of weaponizing energy but a mild winter has helped

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Some of Europe's leaders say Russian President Vladimir Putin is using energy as a weapon this winter to break their solidarity with Ukraine. But predictions of power cuts amid biting cold and high energy prices have not come to pass so far. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that unseasonably mild weather is just part of the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Baker Corinne Butard appeared on French television this month in desperation.

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CORINNE BUTARD: (Through interpreter) I was crying this morning when I had to lay off some of my employees. They're like family. And they have kids and bills to pay. But I have no choice.

BEARDSLEY: No choice because Butard, like many energy-dependent small businesses, signed an electricity contract last fall when all the experts were predicting a severe shortage this winter. But today, she's paying 10 times the current price. This is shocking to energy specialists like Pierre-Louis Brenac at SIA Partners in Paris. He says just several months ago, there was huge fear.

PIERRE-LOUIS BRENAC: Things have been going way easier than we thought. It was a bit of a panic movement, clearly. The fear started back in August - if you remember, on the markets, traders and risk managers alike and banks, by the way, fearing that we would lack supply.

BEARDSLEY: Brenac says the French government had plans to manage rolling blackouts already, including an app to notify households when their neighborhood would be cut from the grid and special procedures to manage hospitals, pharmacies and schools.

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BEARDSLEY: This peppy public service announcement encouraging people to save energy shows hands flicking off lights, turning off water taps and turning down heaters. French households and industry have helped the situation by reducing consumption. So far, no EU country has had to initiate rolling blackouts. Au contraire - there's plenty of power. And the price of electricity has, in fact, gone way down.

BRENAC: There's a combination of positive factors, and planets are aligning not only because the weather is milder but also because the production means are available, and the balance is good between imports, production.

BEARDSLEY: Germany and France have set up floating regasification plants to receive liquefied natural gas imports. Norway and the Netherlands are pumping North Sea gas and oil at full throttle. And France is again exporting nuclear power to its neighbors, even though it had to close several reactors for maintenance over the last year. Nuclear expert Olivier Appert says there's a glut of energy today.

OLIVIER APPERT: What is surprising is due to this mild weather, some of the reactors has been stopped due to the fact that the demand is not enough to justify the functioning of these reactors.

BEARDSLEY: Appert says Russia's war in Ukraine, on top of climate change, has created a huge consensus across Europe in favor of nuclear energy for the future.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron has stepped in to help the bakers, demanding that energy providers let small businesses renegotiate existing contracts to reflect today's prices. That's a welcome move, says Brenac. He says Europe is showing amazing solidarity in the face of Putin's attempts to divide it by weaponizing energy.

BRENAC: Yet another time European countries are found in a tense situation, the will and the determination to find compromise between themselves - it's a matter of pride, I think, for our European nations to show the resolve and the unity.

BEARDSLEY: There are just a few more weeks of possible crippling cold, says Brenac. But if Europe can make it to Valentine's Day, it will be in the clear.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "THE WRANGLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.