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ENERGY

Energy sobriety: What does Macron’s plan to cut energy use mean for France?

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday that the government will prepare a plan for 'sobriété énergétique' as Europe faces a winter without Russian gas - so what does this mean for people living in France?

Energy sobriety: What does Macron's plan to cut energy use mean for France?
(Photo: Ludovic Marin / AFP)

In the traditional presidential interview with journalists on the day of the Fête nationale, Macron said that Russia was using energy as “a weapon of war”.

“Today we must prepare for a scenario where we have to do without Russian gas entirely,” he added. 

READ ALSO Macron says France to do without Russian gas

He added that the government was working on a sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) plan.

But what does that mean?

The president’s interview provided few details, as is usual for Macron, he simply sketched out the idea and added that details will follow once the government has figured out what they are.

But here’s what we do know:

France, which draws most of its electricity from nuclear power, is not as dependent on Russian gas as other EU countries, such as Germany, for energy production. But Macron wants a 10 percent cut in energy consumption across France in two years.

The country’s top three energy providers have already called on the public to reduce energy consumption this summer in order to save resources and avoid shortages this winter as cuts to Russian gas and oil begin to bite.

READ ALSO French energy firms urge ‘immediate’ cut in consumption to avoid shortages this winter

Businesses

The initial part of the plan seems to be focused on businesses and public officials, rather than households.

I am going to ask our public administrations, our large businesses, to prepare a plan to consume less this summer,” Macron said.

This line was repeated on Friday by transport minister Clément Beaune in a TV interview.

“We are going to build a plan and we are going to try to pay attention to lighting in the evening. We are going to make a sobriety and load-shedding plan  – it is gas and electricity we are talking about here – with businesses,” Beaune said.

Households

But households in France will also play a role in the plan by saving energy, with Macron calling for “collective solidarity”.

In energy terms, load-shedding is the deliberate and temporary interruption of an electricity supply to avoid excessive load on the generating plant. In South Africa, load-shedding involves planned rolling power cuts in towns and cities, although it’s unlikely that this will be necessary in France.

It seems more likely that more straightforward efforts – as simple as businesses switching off the lights when they close for the evening – will be tried first.

In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward. And the number of towns and villages switching off streetlights in the early hours may well increase.

Environmental campaigners have already been calling for businesses to shut off their lights when they are closed, as this viral video highlights.

Meanwhile, Europe1 has reported that the government could bring forward plans to buy electric rather than ICE fleet cars, and it is considering asking supermarkets and businesses to cut down on air conditioning and heating use in summer and winter.

Gas

The plan intends France to cut energy consumption by 10 percent in two years, and that gas consumption is a key target. Currently, France’s 16 underground gas storage sites are 68 percent full – up from 56 percent full at the same time in 2021. 

READ ALSO France no longer receiving any Russian gas via pipelines

Macron wants them at 100 percent capacity before the start of what’s known as “gas winter” on November 1st, when consumption traditionally starts to rise. 

The problem is that Russian gas supplier Gazprom has cutting deliveries to Europe via Nord Stream 1 by 66 percent since mid-June, and shut down the pipeline completely on July 11th – officially for a 10-day maintenance period.

France gets around 17 percent of its gas from Russia through network connections with Germany, which relies heavily on Russian supplies and has criticised Gazprom’s move as “political”, and is working to diversify its sourcing of future gas supplies, Macron said.

Nuclear power

In the longer-term, Macron said that France’s energy security would continue to depend on nuclear power. The country currently draws about 70 percent of its energy needs from its ageing nuclear power stations. 

Macron has already outlined plans to renew France’s nuclear power generation and committed again to continuing down this path, saying: “Nuclear power is a sustainable solution … in France and abroad.”

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

We should expect to find out more about the plan in the coming days.

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ENERGY

Reader Question: Why has the price of fuel for log-burners doubled in France?

The cost for one tonne of the wood pellets used to power wood-burners or stoves has doubled since the beginning of 2021.

Reader Question: Why has the price of fuel for log-burners doubled in France?

Question: We have a poêle in our home in south west France and we have noticed that the price of the wood pellets has rocked in recent months – is this an issue all over France? And why?

Although French consumers are largely shielded from the rocketing prices of gas and electricity seen in many European countries, there is one heating method that has not escaped rising costs – wood-burners.

Many French homes have either open fires or log-burners known as poêles, and the most efficient thing to burn in these are specially created wood pellets known as either pellets or granulés de bois

How much do they cost?

On September 20th, Eric Vial, the director of Propellet, the national association of wood pellet heating professionals, told Actu France that the price has almost doubled since last summer.

“Today, a tonne can be bought for about €600. At the beginning of 2021, it would be €300, €350”, Vial told Actu France on September 20th.

The pellets are usually sold in either DIY stories, specialist outlets or hypermarkets and of course the retail prices vary, but in most cases stores have had no choice but to pass the cost increases on to customers.

Why the increase?

Wood pellets have increased in price for several reasons, namely increased demand and higher production costs.

First, demand for wood pellets increased significantly this year. It also came earlier than it normally does, as people began preparing for winter earlier. Many customers placed order before the start of production for 2022.

“The supply is restricted compared to the demand,” explained a spokesperson for Propellet to La Depeche.

The increased demand amid concerns of energy shortages this winter came alongside a general trend of more installations of pellet-burners in France, as installations are supported by the government in an effort to reduce pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. Households can benefit from State aids and subsidies to install new or refurbish old heating systems.

READ MORE: Heating homes: What are the rules on fires and log burners in France?

Between 2020 and 2021, sales of pellet stoves have increased by 41 percent and sales of pellet boilers by 120 percent.

Stores across the country have been forced to limit sales with demand outpacing supply. One such shop is the Weldom store in Fleurance, near Toulouse, who found themselves out of stock in late September. Store owners told La Depeche that they have “a lot of demand at the moment” and if the re-stock delivery “does not arrive, it will be a loss for the store.”

Prices are also rising is due to increased production costs.

According to Propellet, production expenses first increased during the pandemic when plastic and metal elements needed for the creation of pellets were more difficult to find. Currently, the issue facing the industry is the price of electricity. 

Vial explained Actu France that “To manufacture pellets, you need electricity. Because of what is happening in Ukraine, [the price of electricity] has increased a lot.”

According to Christian Lejeune, the manager of the sawmill in Grand-Est, several companies that supply wood pellets are more directly impacted by the war in Ukraine. “They imported their supplies from Ukraine or Belarus,” explained Lejeune to Republicain Lorrain.

Unlike electricity and gas, wood pellets have not fallen under a government price shield to protect consumers from price increases related to inflation. 

READ MORE: LATEST: France to set maximum 15 percent gas and electricity price rises for 2023

Some local politicians, such as the MP for the Ardennes area, Pierre Cordier, have begun pushing for wood pellets to be covered by a price shield, as well as for action to be taken to protect against possible shortages. 

The Minister of Environment, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, responded to Cordier’s requests on September 13th, saying that the government has “taken measures to promote the production of pellet and not be in a supply impasse.” 

The details of such measures were not yet communicated as of September 26th, but according to the Prime Minister’s press conference detailing the extension of the energy shield for electricity and gas, households that use wood-burners will also benefit from the cheque energie, depending on their level of income.

Is there concern about a shortage?

Propellet told La Depeche that “we are not yet in a situation of shortage” instead they are concerned about “temporary strains.”

The association of wood pellet heating professionals expects that the situation will have “smoothed over in the coming months” but this will depend largely on the weather. A colder winter would increase demand.

In the event of a harsh winter, France might need to import wood pellets from other countries, which could prove problematic, as the situation for many other countries is “similar” to France in that there is increased consumer interest in purchasing wood pellets, according to Vial. 

The sector hopes to double its production capacity by 2028, and to distribute an additional one million tonnes between 2021 and 2024. 

On September 22nd, TotalEnergies inaugurated a new pellet bagging and bulk centre.

The plant, which was set up in partnership with the organisation Sea Invest, is intended to boost supplies by increasing the site’s processing capacity from 25,000 metric tons to 50,000 metric tons within three years. Pellets produced will be distributed in a 200 km area around Rouen.

What about firewood?

Consumers have also found themselves paying more for firewood due to a rise in demand – prices have gone up 20 percent since June, according to BFMTV.

When asked about the rising price of wood, the prime minister said that her administration would “look carefully at why wood has a high cost” adding that she believes it “can be produced on our territory.”

“We have forests in France so it will also be interesting to look at whether some people are not taking advantage of the crisis to increase prices,” said Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

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