France power cuts: Risk falling in the short-term

Falling electricity usage and rising nuclear production have caused the chance of planned cuts to drop from high to medium

A photo of someone turning their thermostat down
Power cuts now appear less likely in France this January as consumption drops and nuclear production increases higher than predicted
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The risk of power cuts in France in January has dropped from ‘high’ to ‘medium’, electricity networks have said, as electricity usage continues to decrease.

Electricity network RTE revised its predictions for the coming month on December 20.

Previously, France had been preparing for possible power cuts in January, with a plan being put into action to limit cuts to two hours and to ensure that high-priority customers and sites would not be left without power.

Read more: What to expect from the test run of power cuts in France

Thomas Veyrenc, strategy director at RTE, told FranceInfo: “France is going into the middle of winter in a more favourable situation compared to the start of autumn.”

He said that the electricity system was “better prepared”. The risk of Ecowatt (the power usage alert system) issuing a critical ‘red’ alert (the last stage before a power cut) has dropped from a 4/5 to 3/5.

Here are key reasons why the risk level has dropped.

Electricity consumption has decreased 9%

Electricity use has dropped nationwide by 9% over the last four weeks, compared to the 2014-2019 average. This may be due to rising energy prices or generally more careful behaviour, or both, said RTE.

Its analysis of electricity use also takes into account changing temperatures to rule out exceptionally warm or cold conditions.

In some industrial sectors, the reduction has even been as much as 12%.

This drop is “a very, very significant figure”, said Mr Veyrenc.

Nuclear energy production has passed 40 GW

Nuclear availability has increased since November.

RTE had previously made predictions based on production close to 40 GW, a low seen in early November. But since the end of November, EDF has restarted six reactors.

This means that nuclear capacity exceeded 40 GW on December 14. It is now producing almost two-thirds of maximum production capacity (just over 61 GW).

RTE said: “The availability of nuclear production will increase slightly until it reaches 45 GW by the end of January, before decreasing again from February with the start of the 2023 shutdown campaign.”

Because a major challenge has passed

The first fortnight of December was effectively a ‘stress test’ for the French electricity system.

France experienced below-normal temperatures throughout the first two weeks of the month and electricity consumption levels exceeded 80 GW for the first time this winter.

For example, Monday December 12, was a real test. At around 19:00, consumption reached 82.4 GW.

To cope with this, France used 41.2 GW of nuclear power, 16.4 GW of hydroelectric power, and 9.5 GW from gas-fired plants, showed RTE's Eco2mix platform.

Imported power can be as high as 15 GW, but only 5 GW of imports were used at that time. The country has also been able to use “hydraulic (water) power to the full during the month of December”, said RTE.

Ultimately, the ‘test’ was seen as a success.

However, France has had to draw on its gas reserves to make up the difference. Tanks were 98% full at the end of November, but by December 18, they were only 84% full. As a result, RTE is still keeping a close watch on the situation, it said.

Because temperature forecasts are mild

Weather forecasts from now to mid-January suggest that "the occurrence of a cold spell in the coming weeks seems unlikely".

This is good news for the electricity sector. However, the further into the future forecasts are made, the lower the degree of confidence, said Mr Veyrenc, who advised that people should still use electricity cautiously.

He said: “We have the means to avoid blackouts this winter. To do this, we must maintain our efforts to reduce consumption.”

But risk still high for next winter

Despite the current risk level dropping, the risk of power cuts could be just as high next winter, a nuclear network expert has said.

Yves Marignac, spokesperson for the NégaWatt association, told FranceInfo: “Next winter risks being just as stretched as this one.”

He said that tests had not yet been completed on the nuclear reactors currently being repaired and that there was “a real uncertainty” over whether the reactors would be back in service by next year.

He said: “It’s good news that a certain number of reactors will restart but a third of reactors, meaning 16, are still closed because EDF decided to repair them preventatively.

“We have production capacity of around 10 GW, meaning 10 reactors, under the average that the nuclear network would usually produce at this time of year.

“This shows the fragility of our electricity network, which greatly depends on the at-risk nuclear network.”

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