Why France is struggling to get through the energy crisis

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France‘s large nuclear industry means it is much less dependent on Russian fossil fuels than its European neighbours. So why is he so worried about power cuts this winter?

Russia’s decision to drastically reduce gas exports to Europe in response to sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine threatens to make for a colder than average winter.

President Emmanuel Macron has warned the French to prepare for difficult times.

France is somewhat protected because unlike Germany, which imports 55% of its gas from Russia, Russian imports only account for 17% of France’s gas supply, with the lion’s share coming from Norway.

Gas is mainly used for heating buildings, in industry and to generate electricity.

Storage

In anticipation of the Russian cuts, France began sourcing from alternative sources.

Earlier this month, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said its gas storage facilities were more than 90% full.

“France is well prepared,” he said.

Be that as it may, most of France’s electricity – around two-thirds – is produced by its nuclear power stations.

But that power grid is under strain with more than half of the country’s 56 nuclear power plants currently out of service, whether for routine maintenance or corrosion-related safety issues.

The reduction in nuclear supply has led France to call on its neighbours, notably the United Kingdom, to supply additional electricity via submarine cables.

The energy crisis, coupled with soaring prices, has forced several energy-intensive companies, including glass maker Duralex, to cut production or temporarily shut down.

“Reassuring but not realistic”

In a bid to reassure France’s majority state-owned electricity supplier EDF has announced that all nuclear power plants will be operational by the end of the year.

“The signal is reassuring but not realistic,” said Yves Marignac, nuclear expert at the Négawatt think tank, which works on energy transition.

He considers the schedule too ambitious.

“There is no question that EDF can restart all 32 reactors by this winter. Even EDF’s schedule of gradually restarting them with an end in February should not happen. […] Technically, repairs cannot be carried out in such a short time,” says Marignac.

Spotlight on France, episode 80 © RFI

This story first appeared on the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen to Yves Marignac here.

Wind power, an unpopular alternative

Nuclear is presented as a low-carbon energy, crucial at a time when the world is facing not only an energy crisis but also a climate crisis.

However, the dependence of nuclear reactors on uranium does not allow it to be considered as a renewable energy, unlike wind power, which France is also developing.

It aims to increase the amount of electricity produced by wind farms by 8% to 15% within a decade.

There are 8,000 wind farms across the country, while the first offshore wind farm was opened in June at St Nazaire in Brittany.

Many other projects are in the works, but they are facing growing opposition.

The Somme in northern France has 747 farms, more than any other department. Although they are providing much-needed income, residents have taken legal action to try to stop the wind farm projects.

They cite noise, damage to wildlife and especially the impact of wind turbines on the landscape.

Return the ball?

As presidential elections approach this year, politicians have tapped into discontent to win votes.

Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally, has promised to dismantle all wind farms.

Right-wing politician Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region which has the largest concentration of wind turbines in France, has funded anti-wind groups.

“People are tired of being surrounded by wind turbines,” he said. “Landscapes and nature are part of French heritage Art of living and we degrade it. If we want carbon-free energy, we must continue to support nuclear.

Nuclear expert Marignac says opposition to onshore wind power plants has been fueled by people in the nuclear industry and on the right.

“The right and especially the far right have been extremely vocal against wind power, calling for rural areas to be protected from this kind of ‘invasion,'” he says.

It is based on the idea that reactors provide guaranteed, cheap and carbon-free electricity, and that local wind power is therefore not necessary. But he disputes that.

“The nuclear industry and its supporters are trying to shirk responsibility for the current crisis and put the blame on the shoulders of the government and the pro-renewables movement,” he says.

“But that can’t last long. It is clear that it is the failure of the nuclear industry itself, as well as the heavy dependence on the French electricity system [on] this nuclear fleet, which has led to the current crisis.

Energy efficiency and sufficiency

Faced with the deficiencies of nuclear power and the slowness of renewable energies, France must find other supplies to avoid power cuts this winter.

She took the controversial decision to reopen a coal-fired power station in Saint-Avold in eastern France in October.

And like many of its European neighbours, it is betting on reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency measures.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has called on companies to reduce their energy consumption by 10% compared to 2019 and to come up with energy saving plans.

Individual households are also invited to make an effort.

For Marignac, the convergence of an energy and climate crisis means “there is more room for a boost for renewable energy”. It is also an opportunity to move forward on energy autonomy.

“Because of this crisis, but also due to the overall unsustainability of our patterns of overconsumption, most people understand the need for sufficiency and are therefore prepared to respond to what the government demands,” he says.

But this is conditional on these measures being “fairly implemented” in all areas.

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