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ENERGY

‘We’re not in a disaster movie’ – How likely are blackouts in France this winter?

As the French government asks local authorities to prepare emergency plans in what it insists is the unlikely event of power cuts this winter, we take a look at how likely this scenario really is.

'We're not in a disaster movie' - How likely are blackouts in France this winter?
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)

“We are not announcing power cuts,” said French government spokesman Olivier Véran, on the day when local authorities were asked to prepare detailed emergency plans in the event of a loss of power.

“We have even announced the opposite for the month of December,” continued Véran. ‘But in a situation where we could have a particularly cold and expensive winter for energy, (…) there could be situations of high pressure on the electricity grid and we prepare the French for all scenarios.”

He added: “We’re not in a disaster movie”.

But with local authorities now working on their plans, just how likely is it that they will ever be put into effect?

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

In a detailed interview with BFMTV in September, 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.

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, then the worst case scenario is more likely. If it is a cold but not exceptionally cold winter, France could see the ‘medium case scenario’ in play.

The latest forecast from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predicts a likely “cold blast” in December, but says that overall the winter in Europe is likely to be milder than usual. 

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.

Work is ongoing to complete maintenance work at nuclear power plants and repair tiny cracks that have seen several plants shut down, however in November EDF admitted that it would not have all plants back online by the coldest part of the winter.

Energy-saving failures – the French government has produced a plan to cut the country’s energy usage through energy-saving measures for public institutions, businesses and households.

The measures are compulsory for public institutions, but voluntary for households and the plan is accompanied by a publicity campaigning urging people to make savings this winter.

READ ALSO Cold water, 19C and cash bonuses: France’s energy-saving plan for winter

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. France has begun to ship gas to Germany, on the understanding that it can buy electricity from Germany if needed. 

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 has launched a website and app known as Ecowatt. 

READ ALSO How to use France’s ‘Ecowatt’ site

Ecowatt lists 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. 

In the event of a red alert scenario where cuts become necessary, Ecowatt will list which areas will be affected, and each evening households can enter their address to see if they will be affected by planned cuts. Cuts will be limited to two hours in the morning and evening. 

Schools, trains and hospitals – how France will handle possible blackouts this winter

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. 

Niveau vertla consommation est normale – Green level – electricity consumption is normal (on the Ecowatt site)

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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For members

PROPERTY

France brings in new tax declaration for property-owners

If you own property in France - either a main residence or a second home - you will now have to complete an extra tax declaration after changes to the tax system. Here's how it works.

France brings in new tax declaration for property-owners

People living in France already have to complete a yearly tax declaration, but if you own property here, you will also have to complete an extra declaration this year after changes to the tax system.

Who?

This applies to anyone who owns property in France – whether it is their main residence or a second home. If you do not own property and only rent your home, then this does not concern you.

What?

This isn’t an extra tax, it’s simply an extra piece of paperwork that has to be filled in, known as a Déclaration d’occupation, and this declaration is concerned with whether the property is your main residence or a second home.

Why?

This is because of recent changes to the property tax system. There are two types of property tax in France; taxe foncière which is paid by the property owner and taxe d’habitation which is paid by the property occupier. If you own your home home, traditionally you paid both.

However, taxe d’habitation is in the process of being scrapped for most people, and now only high-earners and second-home owners pay it. The problem is that the tax office don’t have a record of whether a property is used as a main home or a second home and therefore don’t know who to send bills to – hence the new declaration.

How?

If you live in France and already make your annual tax declaration online then this process should be fairly easy – head to impots.gouv.fr, log in and then click on Biens immobiliers (real estate) in the menu bar along the top of the website.

The site will then list the property or properties in your name, and you can fill out the déclaration d’occupation for each, stating whether it is your main residence or a second home.

If you’re not already registered on the impots.gouv site then you have two choices – register and set yourself up an account which will allow you to make the declaration online, or make the declaration on paper.

In order to register on the site you will need your numéro fiscale (tax number) which you should be able to find on previous correspondence from the tax office such as your annual tax bills.

You can find a full explanation of how to set up the online account HERE.

If you would prefer to make the declaration on paper, then the easiest option is to head to your local tax office and ask for a Déclaration d’occupation – you can find the tax office that serves your area by googling ‘Centre des finances publique‘ plus the name of your commune.

You do not need an appointment, as tax offices deal with queries on a walk-in basis, but make sure you check the opening times in advance as some offices, especially in small towns, have unusual opening hours. 

When?

The deadline to have completed the declaration is June 30th, and people who have a property registered should receive notification from the tax office. 

You will then receive your property tax bill in the autumn as usual. 

This is a one-off declaration so you won’t have to do it every year – only when your situation changes, so for example if you sell the property, buy a new one or change from it being a second-home to your main residence. 

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