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ENERGY

Revealed: The worst-case scenario for blackouts this winter in France

The head of France's national electricity operator, RTE, has explained what consumers can expect this winter in France, and lays out the worst-case scenario for households and businesses.

Revealed: The worst-case scenario for blackouts this winter in France
A French electricity transmission system operator RTE (Reseau de Transport d'Electricity) employee works on the renovation of very high voltage lines around Areches-Beaufort, on September 6, 2022. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

RTE – the independent, electricity system operator of France – offered its expectations for this winter in France, and what a worst-case scenario might actually entail.

In a detailed interview with BFMTV, Thomas Veyrenc, the head of RTE, explained that the weather is a crucial factor.

“If the winter is mild, you won’t hear from RTE,” said the electricity boss to BFMTV.

If we have a cold winter, there might be issues with supply, but there are other factors in play.

Veyrenc outlined three possible scenarios;

The best-case scenario – no issues with supply.

The medium scenario – in a “median situation,” RTE may request ‘specific actions’ for up to five days – which would begin with voluntary decreases in energy consumption, starting with companies. So for example factories might shut down some of their production lines, or cease production for one day of the week.

The worst-case scenario – this will involve these ‘specific actions’ being requested for up to a maximum of 30 days. If the voluntary decreases from businesses are not enough, households could see planned power cuts, up to a maximum of two hours, in the evenings or early mornings.

Veyrenc added that the worst case scenario is “very, very unlikely” and that a ‘blackout’ (which he defines as the complete loss of control of the entire French electrical grid) is not possible.

So what would need to happen for the worst case scenario to come about? 

Veyrenc outlined four things which, he said, would all need to happen together before the worst-case scenario outlined above would happen.

Cold winter – if it is an exceptionally cold winter, with temperatures not seen for the previous 10 years. If it is a cold but not exceptionally cold winter, France could see the ‘medium case scenario’ in play.

Continuing nuclear problems – if the current problems with France’s nuclear industry, which has seen almost half the country’s reactors offline, are not resolved.

He said: “There is a crisis in nuclear [and hydroelectric] production in France”.

He explained that while it is normal to have some reactors shut down from summer to autumn, it is abnormal to be operating at half-capacity. Additionally, the ongoing drought in France also served to decrease the hydroelectric production, which represents the second largest source of electricity production. 

Veyrenc was more cautious than EDF (France’s national energy provider, in charge of the country’s nuclear fleet) in anticipating whether all of France’s nuclear reactors will be back online by the winter. In early September, EDF estimated that 27 of the 32 offline reactors will be functional again before the end of December, with the other five will be back on by February. 

Energy-saving failures – the French government is working on a plan to cut the country’s energy usage through energy-saving measures for public institutions, businesses and households. If this fails and energy usage remains the same as the winter of 2021, it makes the worst case scenario more likely.

Lack of European solidarity – in the case of shortages, the back-up plan for France is to buy in energy with other countries, and it has made a bi-lateral pact with Germany on this issue. However if this plan falls through, it makes the worst-case scenario more likely. Veyrenc said “the more solidarity we have with each other in gas and electricity, the better.”

Ecowatt

In order to help people keep up to date with the energy situation, the French government intends to launch an app known as Ecowatt at the end of September.

Ecowatt will list three different levels – green (all functioning normally); orange (the situation is ‘tense’ and ‘actions are welcome’) and red (there is a risk of power cuts without decreases in consumption).

During a ‘red’ alert scenario, the risk of cuts (coupures) would still only happen after several steps and would not be nationwide. 

Veyrenc explained that the Ecowatt tool is not solely intended for households, and that it will be businesses who will have to pay the closest attention to it, rather than individual consumers.

He added that the ‘Ecowatt’ tool will follow these scenarios, and that a ‘red’ alert on the application would align with the median situation where companies will have to enact the protocols they agreed to in energy sobriety plans and consumers will be encouraged, though not obliged, to decrease consumption.

Key terms:

Blackout: The same word as in English, but according to Veyrenc, this is defined as “total loss of control of the [electrical] system” – this would entail a shutdown of the entire French electric grid.

Coupure: A planned power cut, or ‘rolling blackout’ as English-speakers might say. If necessary, these would be targeted by location, shorter than two hours, and outside of work hours. 

In September an app called Ecowatt will be launched, giving updates on the energy situation

Niveau vertla consommation est normale – Green level – electricity consumption is normal

Niveau orange – le système électrique est tendu, et les écogestes sont les bienvenus – Orange level – the electrical system is under pressure and energy-saving actions are welcomed

Niveau rouge – le système électrique est très tendu, et les coupures inévitables si la consommation n’est pas réduite – Red level – the electrical system is under high pressure, power cuts are inevitable if energy consumption is not reduced

Geste – a personal action. In the context of energy, this would involve ‘eco-friendly actions’ such as turning the thermostat down, turning off lights in rooms you are not using or cooking on a lower heat – anything that reduces your personal consumption of energy. 

Chaque geste compte – every action matters, this is the slogan that the government will be using this winter in order to persuade households to make energy-saving gestures.

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ENERGY

French electricity grid operator to return €1 billion to clients

France's electrical grid operator RTE said on Wednesday that it would hand at least one billion euros back to major power users in early 2023, as its revenues have surged during Europe's energy crisis.

French electricity grid operator to return €1 billion to clients

The exact amount will “match the one-off profit forecast for 2022 with the electricity market under stress,” the largely state-owned RTE said in a statement.

It added that the reimbursement could reach a record of more than €1.5 billion.

The move comes as public pressure is growing for an EU-wide tax on the “super-profits” generated by energy companies as prices have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Almost 380 large-scale electricity buyers in industry would share around €130 million from the pot, RTE finance and purchasing director Laurent Martel told AFP.

The companies include chemical plants, metalworking sites, steelmaking operations as well as paper and cardboard factories.

But most of the payout — around 90 percent — will go to operators of local low- and medium-voltage networks, which bridge the gap between RTE and end users of electricity, from industry to households.

RTE’s revenues have been especially strong this year thanks to fees paid to use its so-called “interconnectors” across national borders.

These depend in part on the difference in electricity prices between France and its neighbours, which soared this year due to the energy crunch from the war in Ukraine and a large chunk of the country’s nuclear reactor fleet being under maintenance.

RTE said that without its plan to bring forward the reimbursement, the payments would instead be spread over several years.

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