” There is no risk of cutting current next winter, said Emmanuel Macron in early June, just as the German government was sounding the alarm and launching its energy emergency plan. And for good reason, ” when there are needs, we get our supplies on the European market “, justified the Head of State, claiming to want” to reassure ” the French.
And yet, since this statement, worrying signals have multiplied. Until prices jump to the ceiling: in France, these are currently trading at the staggering price of 790 euros per megawatt hour (MWh) for October-December 2022 on the EPEX stock exchange, i.e. two to three times more than in neighboring countries ! And even approach 1,500 euros per MWh for peak prices, against less than 500 euros in Germany. A ” huge difference “which shows that the market” anticipate a failure in France, warns Nicolas Goldberg, energy specialist at Colombus Consulting. As a reminder, before the health crisis, the price was around fifty euros per megawatt hour.
The nuclear asset turns against France
In fact, the country faces a situation specific “, which further aggravates the crisis and increases the probability of a power shortage this winter, explains Jacques Percebois, economist and director of the Center for Research in Energy Economics and Law (CREDEN). Indeed, while its electricity mix still relies, in theory, almost 70% on the nuclear fleet, it is going through a period of historical unavailability. According to the European network of electricity transmission system operators ENTSO-E, 27 of the 56 reactors in the territory are indeed shut down.
In question: the delay in maintenance due to the coronavirus, which is therefore falling, for several power plants, at this very moment, but above all the recent identification of a corrosion defect on several infrastructures, and whose causes and extent actual remain unknown. In February, EDF had thus presented a program of checks in order to verify the number of reactors affected by the anomaly, and announced that it would stop as a priority, and by the end of April, Bugey 3 and 4, Cattenom 3, Chinon 3 and Flamanville 1 and 2.
“Without this problem of cracking which pushes EDF to close part of the park, we would have a network without margins, but not with a negative margin, as is currently the case”, comments Nicolas Goldberg.
In other words, “ the French nuclear advantage is turning into an element of weakness, and will remain so as long as the reactors are unavailable, and the problem remains unsolved adds Jacques Percebois.
Thus, France will necessarily import large quantities of electricity to meet demand this winter, says Jacques Percebois. And especially during consumption peaks, these being “ usually more frequent and strong in France than elsewhere in Europe, since we heat ourselves much more with electricity than our neighbors “says the economist.
Only here it is: the border countries are also likely to face strong supply tensions, or at least not to have enough surplus to meet French needs. To guard against this, Germany has notably decided to keep in operation nearly 14 GW of coal-fired power stations which were to close this year. But even with this extra power, Berlin anticipates a shortage in the event that Russia decides to further reduce its supply of gas, which is still essential to supply its power stations.
Above all, the possibilities of exchange will in any case be restricted by technical obstacles. ” We must expect bottlenecks linked to network interconnection capacities, currently limited to around 13 GW. This is why in times of tension there is always congestion at the borders. This also explains why the wholesale price is not the same everywhere “, notes Jacques Percebois.
Consequently, the latter should explode in France, despite the country’s connection to the European electricity market. The impact of this phenomenon on consumer bills remains to be seen. Indeed, the State had set up a price shield last winter, which is still in force today, in order to protect citizens from soaring prices. But while the situation promises to get worse, such a device could weigh heavily on public finances.
“To limit the increase in the regulated sales price to 4% rather than 40%, the public authorities have already intervened massively, at all levels. They put suppliers on a drip, while giving aid to consumers, in order to ensure that the market holds. It is an extraordinary interventionism, which has cost taxpayers fortunes “, pointed out to La Tribune a few months ago Xavier Pinon, co-founder and director of the energy broker Selectra.
A glaring lack of controllable margins
Under these conditions, the government has no choice but to sound the alarm, either to increase national electricity production or to reduce demand. He notably announced his intention to urgently reopen the Emile Huchet coal-fired power plant, and to initiate a “sobriety” plan, supposed to push France to save as much energy as possible on the territory.
But in the event of a cold winter, these resources will remain largely insufficient, as the country has little controllable room for maneuver apart from nuclear power.
” For many years, we no longer built controllable means of production [qui permettent de fournir de l’électricité sans variation liée aux conditions météorologiques ou géographiques, ndlr]. We even closed some, building only wind turbines and solar panels instead. Inevitably, this destabilized the network, and increased the risk of non-satisfaction of demand. “, slipped to The gallery André Merlin, the first director of RTE, last April.
The government has notably recorded the end of the nuclear power plant of Fessenheim, in Alsace, definitively shut down in 2020. “This only represented 1.8 GW, so maintaining it would not have been enough, even if it would have provided welcome margins. But we have also shut down more than 10 GW of fossil fuels since 2012. Which is good for the climate, but logically leads to a significant lack of controllable vehicles. Added to this is our lag in energy efficiency, particularly in buildings, which would make it possible to reduce consumption at the same time,” according to Nicolas Goldberg.
Especially since the few projects started to compensate for these closures have accumulated setbacks. In particular the construction of the Flamanville EPR nuclear reactor (1.6 GW), which is more than ten years late, and is still not connected to the network. But also the Landivisiau gas-fired power plant, operated by TotalEnergies and commissioned last April, after numerous schedule shifts.
In terms of non-controllable installations, France’s balance sheet is also not very good, since France has only one offshore wind farm, connected to the network only a few weeks ago. Overall, the wind power sector is still struggling: as of March 31, 2022, the installed power amounted to just over 19 GW, i.e. almost half the objectives of the Multiannual Energy Program (PPE ). And in terms of photovoltaic solar energy, France only produces 2.2%, ie three times less than Germany or Italy.
Cascading consequences on the industry
A ” combination of unfavorable factors sums up Jacques Percebois, the consequences of which could be major. In the event of a shortage, domestic consumers will be given priority anyway “, he recalls. In other words, companies will be the first to see themselves rationed, especially the most energy-intensive, which has not happened since the 1950s. So much so that some manufacturers are seeking to take the lead, such as Stellantis, which is looking for a partner to produce its own energy.
Last April, the executive had thus published a decree providing for load shedding, in other words the temporary and planned reduction in the consumption of natural gas by certain consumers in the event of a shortage. The first concern would be the 5,000 sites that burn more than 5 GW/h per year, apart from those carrying out missions of general interest (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.). This could weigh heavily on the French industrial fabric, already shaken by an endless price explosion.
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