It will be, to quote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.
I am not talking about England v France in the quarter finals of the World Cup (although that will also doubtless also be a close match). I am talking about France’s chances of avoiding power cuts this winter.
The government published plans last week for what will happen if the ailing French nuclear industry fails to generate enough power to satisfy domestic and industrial demand in the next two or three months. The plan was interpreted mournfully by many people, and joyfully by opposition politicians, as a warning that black-outs were definitely on the way.
President Emmanuel Macron insisted at the weekend that this was “far from certain… There is no need to panic”. The head of France’s electricity supply company boasted that France now had 37 working nuclear reactors, compared to 30 at the beginning of November.
Xavier Piechaczyk, president of the Réseau de Transport d’Électricité (RTE), failed to mention that France was six reactors behind schedule. In November, RTE foresaw that 43 of the 56 reactors would be working by now.
So what are the chances of the traffic lights turning red on France’s new EcoWatt system for warning of power cuts? Green means “all fine”; yellow means “cuts in three days unless consumption falls”; red means imminent, selective cuts.
I turned once again to John Carr, a retired British particle physicist living in the south of France, who runs a website which reports on global nuclear issues and fluctuations in power supply in France.
When I asked for his forecast in late October, he said: “I have not decided yet if I should go out to buy paraffin heaters… It is clearly on the edge.”
This week, he says: “It is a very close thing… I have decided not to buy paraffin heaters but I have bought heat pumps….”
“To be safe it must be warm and windy. Although France does not have that much wind capacity, our neighbours do. Low wind in the North Sea, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany affect our imports.”
France, which is usually a net exporter of electricity, has been relying on imports from its neighbours to keep the lights on. Since wholesale electricity prices are inflated by the Ukraine war, this has caused a big leap in France’s trade deficit (at a time when its exports are booming).
Mr Carr’s website (see climate-and-hope.net) contains updated graphs and figures on the power-vacuum which has afflicted France this year. France evolution of Nuclear Generation (climate-and-hope.net )
The once vaunted French nuclear industry – which usually supplies 72 percent of the country’s electricity, leaving a surplus for exports – is in a mess. Delayed maintenance work because of the Covid pandemic and faults in the cooling systems of a dozen reactors closed more than half of the French nuclear industry in the summer.
The French nuclear industry is still producing only about 35 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, compared to 50 gigawatts in a normal winter. In early September, Electricité de France (EDF) had promised that enough reactors would be working again by early December to produce over 50GW.
Partly because of a strike in power stations, partly because of fresh technical problems, the EDF schedule for reopening reactors is far behind schedule. “There are five reactors supposed to start this week but my bet is that 50 percent will not,” says John Carr.
There is, however, some good news. France has reduced its consumption of electricity by around 7 percent. This is mostly thanks to energy-saving in industry.
The figure fluctuates with the weather. It could increase if households stick to the government’s advice to dial down the central heating to 19C.
Total electricity consumption in France at this time of year is usually around 65GW. John Carr’s graphs show that it has been running at between 8 and 11GW below that figure, depending on the temperature.
This has filled much, but not all, of the 13GW to 15GW shortfall in nuclear generated electricity. The rest of the gap has been made up with imports.
If more reactors continue to come back on stream and if the wind is strong in the North Sea and if the weather remains warmer than usual, France might just get away without power cuts this winter.
In sum, the French power crisis has little or nothing to do with the Ukraine war. The government places the blame on EDF for failing to keep its reactors in better shape. The nuclear industry, once the country’s pride and joy, says that it is paying the price for failure by successive governments to invest properly in both nuclear power and alternative sources of energy.
President Macron is not wholly to blame but he did delay until early this year a strategic decision on a new generation of nuclear reactors.
A belated government plan to accelerate investment in renewable energy is before the National Assembly this week. The right and Far Right detest wind power. The minority government will have – for the first time on a big issue – to try to make deals with the Left and Greens.
Some cynics suggest that the government produced its just-in-case “traffic light” plan on power cuts last week in order to concentrate minds in parliament.
In truth, the situation is too fraught for political games.