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France will face electricity shortages even in ‘normal winter’, says boss of country’s power grid

Reactor buildings in the Cruas Nuclear Power Plant, operated by Electricite de France SA (EDF) - Nathan Laine/Bloomberg
Reactor buildings in the Cruas Nuclear Power Plant, operated by Electricite de France SA (EDF) - Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

The head of France’s electricity grid has warned that his country is at risk of electricity shortages this winter, as problems with its nuclear power stations mount.

Xavier Piechaczyk, president of the Reseau Transport d’Electricite (RTE), said consumers are likely to be called on to use less electricity at certain times in the event of a cold or even “normal” winter as electricity supplies run short.

RTE is in a state of “state of particular vigilance”, he added, in a warning that also raises questions for Britain’s power supplies this winter.

National Grid is hoping to be able to import power from the continent at times of peak demand if gas shortages mean not enough electricity being generated domestically.

Almost half of France’s nuclear power stations, which are owned and run by EDF, are currently offline, either for maintenance or as a result of corrosion problems.

The widespread shutdowns add to the strain on the energy system caused by gas shortages.

France typically exports electricity to other countries but is less able to do so given its nuclear problems, creating the risk that Britain will struggle to buy what it needs at peak times this winter. National Grid has warned there could be blackouts in the UK if it cannot import electricity when needed.

RTE is publishing a forecast of electricity supplies up to four days in advance, known as Ecowatt, to try and help manage the system. If supplies are looking tight, it will launch a “red alert” calling on users to cut consumption.

Mr  Piechaczyk told Radio Classique on Monday: “We remain in a situation of particular vigilance. If it’s hot, you won’t hear about red Ecowatt. If it’s very cold, you’ll hear a lot of them, and if we’re in an average, median, normal winter, it will be a few units of red Ecowatt.”

As of Monday morning, 32 of EDF’s 56 nuclear power reactors in France were online. EDF aims to have 11 reactors back up and running by December and another four operational in January.

However, there is a degree of uncertainty given the complications of nuclear technology.

Early last week, French power prices for January surged above €1,000 per megawatt hour after EDF cut its electricity output for the fourth time this year. Prices have since fallen back, though remain far higher than in neighbouring countries.

Mr Piechaczyk said he was taking a “cautious” approach to nuclear plant availability in RTE’s forecasts, Bloomberg reported, given the risk of maintenance taking longer than planned.

Higher prices and mild weather are helping to cut consumption, but the “nuclear fleet risks being even less available than we had foreseen, so we’ll have to assess if that evens out,” he added. Several large industrial consumers in France have agreed to cut their usage in the event of a “red alert”.

France is one of several countries that trades electricity with Britain, helping balance out supplies on both sides. In its winter outlook published in October, Britain's National Grid warned it may have to impose rolling power cuts if gas-fired power stations cannot get all the fuel they need and imports from Europe cannot plug the gap.

National Grid's base case is that the lights will stay on, however.

There are hopes that the difference in peak times between France and the UK will help prevent a supply crunch that triggers blackouts.

National Grid is running a scheme under which British households will be paid to cut demand if needed. It confirmed last week it would use this scheme to support exports to the continent in extreme circumstances.

There are major strains on gas supplies as a result of cuts in Russian supplies of gas to Europe amid its war on Ukraine.