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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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CRIME

French tycoon fined €150k for harming tortoises

Corsican construction tycoon Patrick Rocca was fined €150,000 on Tuesday for harming protected tortoises on a building site even after officials told him to stop.

French tycoon fined €150k for harming tortoises

Six dead specimens of a species known as Hermann’s tortoise and another “fatally wounded” animal were found when officers from France’s biodiversity agency inspected the worksite in December 2019.

Around 3.5 hectares of the habitat just outside the Mediterranean island’s capital Ajaccio were disturbed and 2.8 hectares destroyed, the inspectors found, calling for the work to be halted.

But Rocca’s Fortimmo company – one of the largest employers on the French Mediterranean island, with around 1,000 local workers – continued construction, with more dead tortoises found a few days later.

His conviction for mutilation and unauthorised destruction of a protected animal species and their habitat follows a court ruling against Fortimmo, which had to pay a €500,000 fine, and a total of €530,000 in damages.

Rocca’s lawyer Philippe Gatti called the punishments “excessive”.

Corsica is one of the last places where Hermann’s tortoises – the only species native to France – still live in the wild.

They are protected by France and the European Union as well as internationally.

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