Power cut risk remains in France but the ‘worst has been avoided’

Action by EDF to reopen power stations and efforts by the French to use less energy appear to be paying off, an energy expert says

Although experts are confident that the power cut situation this winter has improved, they are not ruling out that they could still happen

France is facing the risk of planned power cuts this January but the signs are good that the worst-case scenario of widespread cuts has been averted.

Work to get out-of-action nuclear power stations operating again plus efforts by people and firms to use less energy appear to be paying off.

Many people have also been opting for EDF’s ‘Tempo’ offer which gives savings for avoiding peak time use.

A director of RTE, responsible for operating the high-tension electricity network, told senators that while they are still in a state of heightened vigilance, “we’ve avoided the worst”.

The risky point was late November

The most risky point, he said, was late November, when many power stations were at a standstill and wintry weather was beginning – but it had passed without serious difficulties.

France has drawn up a strategy of planned temporary power cuts if the network comes under too much pressure and this is still in place.

Read more: People's energy-saving efforts reduce electricity use in France

Energy firms say they will do their best to avoid this happening until January.

Worries over France’s situation came to a head at the start of autumn as half of the reactors were not running, a serious problem as France is largely self-reliant in its – mostly nuclear-powered – electricity.

Clément Bouilloux, France expert for energy market consultants EnAppSys, said one factor was that a lot of power stations had been shut for maintenance works which could not be completed during the pandemic.

It resulted in a lot of catching up to be done.

Another issue was that in around 15 latest-generation power stations there had been suspicion of corrosion inside the reactors. They had to be closed to investigate and carry out repairs. “In recent weeks, EDF has got many power stations working again but it’s mostly these that are still shut,” Mr Bouilloux said.

Plans to reopen closed reactors

Around 41 out of 56 reactors are working in France. A gradual plan to reopen them all is planned through to late February.

“So, the situation is better, or rather less bad, but having around 15 stopped is still exceptional,” he added. Meanwhile, a new reactor at Flamanville, Normandy, will now not start operating until mid-2024 (12 years after the original intended date) instead of the end of 2023.

In a typical year there would be from one to five reactors shut in December, Mr Bouilloux said. “Generally, by January they are pretty much all going.

There might be one or two where there are issues but they normally pull out all the stops to ensure they’re all functional. At the moment we’re far from that. “

When it’s very cold, France might buy a little from its neighbours but on the whole it’s normally a net exporter.

“This year, there’s not just a risk in France but it destabilises the situation in Europe generally, notably in the UK.”

He said it was a “fairly positive point” that EDF had acted quickly to get as many reactors going as possible but the corrosion issue appeared complicated and there was little information as to how it is coping with it.

“I wouldn’t rule out power cuts this winter – it’s starting to get cold – though I think they might be less likely in France than for its neighbours.

Read more: How to check when electricity usage is under strain in France

Temperatures still a factor

“So maybe the worst has been avoided but that doesn’t mean nothing will happen. It’s going to depend a lot on the weather and the temperatures.

“For now we have stocks of gas so we can keep everything running but if it’s still very cold at the end of February I’m not sure where we will stand.” There might also be risks early this month if it is very cold and a number of ‘corroded’ reactors are still stopped.

“But unless there’s some disaster, it’s unlikely during the holidays,” he said.

RTE has published figures showing residents had latterly cut their energy use by 10% compared to the average in 2014-19. Mr Bouilloux, however, questioned how reliable these figures might be as he said this is hard to calculate.

He also thought it was likely that any reduction had come more from industry than the public.

The association of rural mayors of France has raised concerns that villages might be the most affected by any cuts as priority services such as hospitals are usually in towns and cities.

‘I bet there won’t be any cuts in Paris’

“I bet there won’t be any cuts in Paris,” the association’s president Michel Fournier said on FranceInfo.

Schools are not on the priority list and are liable to close if they happen, at least for part of the day. Mr Fournier also criticised the fact that warnings of cuts will only be put out the day before online or via an app.

Read more: How would planned power cuts affect schools in France?

Some rural residents were “not connected” and it left little time for mairies to communicate.

Any cuts will be during peak usage periods so between 08:00 and 13:00 or between 18:00 and 20:00. A cut would last for a maximum of two hours and they would be spread around France so the same areas would not be affected consecutively.

If France’s monitoring of the energy situation hits a ‘red alert’, this will be shown three days before via the EcoWatt smartphone app or at monecowatt.fr.

Read more: French power cuts: will we be notified in advance if in area affected?

Electricity network operators Enedis and RTE will release details of addresses to be affected at 17:00 the day before, via their websites.

Enedis also has an online tool through which people can search an address or postcode here.

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