ISSN 2330-717X

Risk Of Winter Blackouts ‘Unlikely’, Say French Energy Grid Operators

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By Paul Messad

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(EurActiv) — The risk of energy cuts are “improbable” in the colder months, according to French electricity and gas grid operators who nevertheless urge extra efforts on demand reduction to avoid the risk of blackouts in extreme scenarios.

French electricity operator RTE and gas network operator GRTgaz presented their energy forecasts for the coming months last week (14 September).

According to their forecasts, reducing energy consumption during the winter will become necessary, even in the event that more nuclear energy becomes available and current tensions on the energy market are reduced.

This will largely depend on whether temperatures are average, “cold” or “very cold”, the operators said.

And the autumn is likely to pose as many risks as the winter, warned the president of RTE’s Managing Board, Xavier Piechaczyk. 

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This is due to the low availability of hydroelectric power – 33 terawatt hours (TWh) compared with an average of 43 TWh in previous years – and the low forecast availability of the nuclear fleet, only half of which was in operation on 12 September.

Three scenarios

In its assessment, RTE presented three scenarios for France.

In the first and best scenario, it is assumed that nuclear will be quickly available and reach 82% capacity by January 2023. This “unprecedented” pace of reactor restarts would, however, only be achieved if the European gas market encounters little to no pressure, or if consumption is strongly reduced, RTE highlighted.

In the intermediate, and most likely, scenario, about 75% of France’s nuclear capacity will be available in January, meaning a significant amount of electricity will have to be imported.

In this scenario, reducing consumption may still be necessary, but in small amounts only. And in case the winter gets very cold, temporary or localised cuts in electricity would need to be made.

In the worst-case scenario, if gas and nuclear shortages continue, power cuts will be “unavoidable if consumption does not decrease” even if the winter is mild, RTE warned.

One way of reducing consumption, the operator suggested, would be for French customers to implement the RTE’s Ecowatt scheme – a system that gives advice on how to adapt one’s energy consumption to the weather.

Low risk of cuts

However, the necessary series of events that would lead to power cuts are “improbable”, said RTE in its summary for decision-makers, noting that, in most cases, energy consumption would only have to be reduced between 1 to 5%.

“We could get through a winter, even a cold one, without difficulty” if demand reduction measures are taken, said Piechaczyk.

This reassuring message contrasts with earlier declarations, when a source from RTE told EURACTIV in July that major cities in France were likely to face power cuts this winter.

In the worst-case scenario – a prolonged cold winter and low supplies – consumption may have to be reduced by 15%, particularly between 8 am and 1 pm, and during weekdays from 6 pm to 8 pm, RTE said in a note to decision-makers.

The recommendation echoes the Commission’s proposal for a binding EU-wide target of 5% energy consumption reduction during peak hours.

“Reducing demand rebalances the energy market, lowers energy bills, reduces emissions and protects us from Russian gas shenanigans,” said Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.

And gas in all this?

RTE’s three scenarios are closely linked to the availability of gas which is increasingly used for the production of electricity – even in a country like France which traditionally relies mostly on nuclear.

Gas use for electricity generation in France doubled in the first half of 2021 (to 24 TWh), and again in the second half of 2022 to reach about 39 TWh, reported gas network operators GRTGaz and Teréga.

In the case of a hard winter, a 2.0-4.7% drop in the availability of gas supplies would be expected. If the winter is mild, however, it is unlikely to affect gas supplies.

Saving gas, and electricity produced by gas, will thus be necessary so as not to deplete reserves too early in the winter.

The conservation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) will also be necessary to allow terminals to transfer maximum energy during peak consumption times, said GRTgaz, noting that it would thus be necessary to replenish gas storage facilities.

Consumers too could play a decisive role during the winter by reducing their heating by 1°C, GRTgaz said, saying this would lead to a 7% reduction in gas consumption. 

Energy cut-off schemes

Industry also has a role to play through voluntary paid cut-off schemes, which have the potential of saving 200 GWh per day, or about 5% of consumption on a very cold day, according to GRTgaz.

However, the French gas operator said cuts will only be imposed on industrial consumers as a last resort.

“If everyone takes its share, there will be no cut,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told a press conference after the operators presented their findings.

While “the risk that a few per cent of French consumption cannot be supplied on certain days is real,” RTE notes that “France does not run the risk of a ‘blackout’.”

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