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ECONOMY

ANALYSIS: Will there be energy rationing in France this winter?

As Russia cuts off its gas supplies to Europe, what can we expect from the winter ahead and are energy rationing or even blackouts likely?

ANALYSIS: Will there be energy rationing in France this winter?
A woman sets a radiator in her apartment in eastern France in 2021.(Photo by JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN / AFP)

France and the rest of Europe are looking toward the winter of 2022 apprehensively, with significant concern about rising energy prices and possible power shortages.  

As a result of the war in Ukraine, much of Europe is attempting to plan for how they will manage without Russian fossil fuels. Russia provided 40 percent of Europe’s gas in 2021, but for France this number was significantly lower – about 17 percent. 

Even though France is in a better comparative position than some of its European neighbours (such as Germany which, prior to the war, imported half its gas from Russia), experts and politicians alike are worried about possible shortages this winter. 

What is the current energy situation in France?

France’s electricity transmission network (RTE) has warned that “the period 2021-2024 will constitute a ‘low point’ in terms of power supply security,” but this is not solely due to the war in Ukraine.

France is also facing a lower energy output from its nuclear plants, which account for over 67 percent of the country’s total electricity production.

As of August 29th, 57 percent of France’s of nuclear generation capacity was offline, according to data produced by EDF, either for routine maintenance or because of technical problems. The risk of power shortages also stems from the recent closure of France’s last coal-fired power plants, according to RTE.

Russia appears to have now halted all gas deliveries to Europe, but by the start of September, France had managed to fill more than 90 percent of its gas reserves filled, according to the Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory (AGSI).

However, even with the stocks at full capacity, stored gas still only covers about a quarter of the country’s annual consumption, and half of the country’s winter consumption, according to reporting by Le Progres.

What are the experts and politicians saying?

Experts have been warning for several weeks that the energy situation in the coming months will be precarious. 

Nicolas Goldberg, an energy expert at Columbus Consulting, told France 24 that it will depend largely on weather conditions. “If it’s cold, there’s no wind this winter and we don’t bring up our electricity production with the French nuclear fleet, there could be a shortage of electricity. It is not certain, but it is possible,” he said

Angélique Palle, a professor in geography at the Sorbonne and a specialist in supply issues and energy transition told la Nouvelle République that she does not believe French residents will need to worry about supply this winter.

She said that “the probability that the State would cut gas inputs for French citizens is almost zero.”

She estimates that even in case of a very serious crisis, with extreme temperatures, “to cut the supply of the French would represent too big of a political step for the executive.”

The French government is still finalising its plan for sobriété enérgetique (energy saving) but has previously said that “if we were to come to rationing, companies would be the first to be affected.”

Government spokesperson Olivier Véran said: “We want to avoid cuts [in gas and electricity]. Businesses would be the first to be affected. But everything is possible.”

He added that: “Those who are already in an insecure situation [ie people on low incomes] will not be the ones asked to make such efforts, obviously.”

Veran added: “We are ahead of the supply compared to other years. We will have reached our goal of filling our gas stocks to 100 percent by the end of the summer, but that does not mean that we will have enough.”

What would energy rationing look like in France?

It would involve several steps. According to RTE, “France will not be in the dark” and that there are “several steps are planned to keep the network going before possible blackouts.”

RTE also said that while “the risk of power cuts this winter exists, it does not mean that they will materialise.”

As a means of avoiding blackouts, RTE can activate “the interruption of large industrial consumers”, who are “paid for this purpose.”

Essentially, this means that some heavy industrial sites could have their power cut in an attempt to relieve the the rest of the network.

As a second step, RTE could decide to lower the voltage on the whole electrical network by up to five percent to reduce consumption.

Individuals are unlikely to even notice this – Franceinfo described such effects as “hotplates heating a little less” and “light bulbs growing slightly dimmer.” However, the culmination of such efforts could save a significant amount of power. 

If, despite these steps, the electricity network is still not balanced, then “targeted and momentary power cuts” could be implemented.

RTE would organise “rotating load shedding,” this would last a maximum of two hours per day, and it would take place “only in the morning between 8am and 1pm or in the evening between 5.30pm and 8.30pm,” according to Franceinfo.

Priority sites – such as hospitals, clinics, national defence buildings, and high-risk industries or public lighting installations essential for safety – would be excluded from the risk of power shut offs. 

Experts agree that these are very unlikely to happen.

For gas, cuts would be more complex and done only in businesses, not private homes, French environment minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher told France Radio. This clarification – that households will not be impacted by gas cuts – was echoed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

In these cases, they “will not last two hours, because to stop a valve it takes time, it could last one or two days,” but she assured that “everything will not stop for 10 days.” Pannier-Runacher also added that to cope with these cuts, it will be possible to use generators or batteries, explaining that the State is “in the process of identifying all generators.”

What role does the weather play?

The possibility of energy rationing will depend heavily on the weather – according to RTE, when the temperature drops by just one degree, consumption increases by 2,400 MW.

As heating accounts for 66 percent of household energy consumption, and many homes in France are heated via electric radiators, a particularly severe cold snap could lead to a significant increase in electricity consumption.

An unusually cold winter or severe cold snap could create the conditions for ‘rotating load shedding’ discussed above.

However, according to Franceinfo, RTE is planning to offer consumers “electricity weather forecasts” on the Ecowatt website, which will allow people to consider adopting ‘ecogestures’ prior to low temperatures in an effort to limit their consumption and decrease the strain on the power grid.

How is the government planning to respond?

In addition to filling its gas reserves, France is set to reactivate the coal-fired power plant in Moselle, which was shut down in the spring, as well as to allow for higher hours of operations in highly polluting plants. This would allow for “the only other coal-fired power plant – the one in Loire-Atlantique – which is still in operation in France to produce more electricity,” according to Franceinfo.  

France is also looking to Algeria to increase its gas deliveries, as discussed during president Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to the country. France currently gets about eight percent of its gas from Algeria.

How could I be impacted by ‘energy sobriety’ plans?

While the specifics of Macron’s energy sobriety plans for individuals remain to be unveiled, the ultimate goal is to reduce energy consumption by ten percent by 2024.

RTE released several recommendations for how individuals could reduce electricity consumption in France in its report “Energy Futures 2050,” which was published in June. Some of these recommendations include increasing work-from-home and recommending households lower their heating by 1C.

All energy-saving measures for private households are voluntary.

Member comments

  1. According to Ouest-France, the coal-fired station at Cordemais near Nantes is being kept running; it’s partly converted to wood pellets (even though some are imported)

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POLITICS

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What’s in France’s 2023 budget?

France's finance minister has unveiled the government's financial plans for the next year, and says that his overall aim is to 'protect' households in France from inflation and rises in the cost of living - here's what he announced.

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What's in France's 2023 budget?

The 2023 Budget was formally presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, before economy minister Bruno Le Maire announced the main details to the press. 

The budget must now be debated in parliament, and more details on certain packages will be revealed in the coming days, but here is the overview;

Inflation – two of the biggest measures to protect households from the rising cost of living had already been announced – gas and electricity prices will remain capped in 2023, albeit at the higher rate of 15 percent, while low-income households will get a €100-200 grant. The energy price cap is expected to cost the government €45 billion in 2023.

EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Property renovations – the MaPrimeRenov scheme, which gives grants to householders for works that make their homes more energy-efficient, will be extended again into 2023, with a budget of €2.5 billion to distribute.

Income tax – the income tax scale will be indexed to inflation in 2023, so that workers who get a pay increase to cope with the rising cost of living don’t find themselves paying more income tax. “Disposable income after tax will remain the same for all households even if their salary increases,” reads the 2023 Budget.

Pay rises –  pay will increase for teachers, judges and other civil servants as inflation is forecast to reach 4.3 percent next year after 5.4 percent in 2022. Around €140 million is assigned to increase the salaries of non-teaching staff in schools. 

New jobs – nearly 11,000 more public employees will be hired, in a stark reversal of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign promise to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – 2,000 of these jobs will be in teaching. 

Small business help – firms with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million will also benefit from the 15 percent price cap on energy bills in 2023. The finance ministry will put in place a simplified process for small businesses to claim this aid. In total €3 billion is available to help small businesses that are suffering because of rising costs. 

Refugees – In the context of the war in Ukraine, the government plans to finance 5,900 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in various reception and emergency accommodation centres. The budget provides for a 6 percent increase in the “immigration, asylum and integration” budget.

Cigarettes – prime minister Elisabeth Borne had already announced that the price of cigarettes will rise “in line with inflation”.

Ministries – Le Maire also announced the budget allocation for the various ministries. The Labour ministry is the big winner with an increase of 42.8 percent compared to last year, coupled with the goal to reach full employment by 2027. Education gets an increase of €60.2 billion (or 6.5 percent more than in 2022), much of which will go on increasing teachers’ salaries, while the justice and environment ministries will also see increased budgets.

Conversely, there was a fall in spending for the finance ministry itself.

Borrowing –  the government will borrow a record €270 billion next year in order to finance the budget. “This is not a restrictive budget, nor an easy one – it’s a responsible and protective budget at a time of great uncertainties,” said Le Maire. 

The government is tabling on growth of one percent, a forecast Le Maire defended as “credible and pro-active” despite an estimate of just 0.5 percent GDP growth by the Bank of France, and 0.6 percent from economists at the OECD.

The public deficit is expected to reach five percent of GDP, as the EU has suspended the rules limiting deficit spending to three percent of GDP because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Parliament

The budget plans now need to be debated in parliament where they are likely to face fierce opposition. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party and its allies lost their majority in elections earlier this year.

Macron also plans to push ahead with a pension reform that would gradually start pushing up the official retirement age from 62 currently, setting up a standoff with unions and left-wing opposition parties.

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