French Power Supply Margins Seen Under Threat in Coming Winters

France’s electricity supply may be unable to cope with extreme cold or unplanned power plant outages over the next three winters as atomic output remains constrained by long maintenance halts, the country’s grid operator said.

The warning comes after bitter cold in Texas last month left millions without electricity and heat for days and killed dozens. While nowhere near the same situation, the French grid asked users to reduce consumption in January as supply margins briefly came under strain during a cold snap.

As the French government shuts the country’s last coal plants in the transition from fossil fuels, margins will remain weak throughout 2024 as the pandemic continues to disrupt maintenance schedules and safety checks at Electricite de France SA’s atomic plants, Reseau de Transport d’Electricite said in a report. Next winter requires “particular vigilance” similar to last winter, it said.

“At the start of this decade, insufficient margins aren’t protective enough against extreme events, which might create tensions on the safety of supply,” RTE Chairman Xavier Piechaczyk said in a press conference. Such cases may require “exceptional measures,” including voluntary load-shedding, reduced grid voltage, and ultimately, rotating power cuts.

Margins will become “acceptable” in the 2024-26 period thanks to the commissioning of new atomic generation scheduled in 2023, the ramp-up of renewables, the completion of new interconnectors, and new demand-response management systems, according to RTE.

While the government plans to fully exit coal by the end of next year, it should keep EDF’s Cordemais coal plant open -- possibly using biomass as a fuel -- until at least 2024 to help supply safety, Piechaczyk said. The government, which also plans to shut down a dozen nuclear reactors by 2035, should refrain from starting to do so before 2027, he said.

While power demand may rise 5% to 500 terawatt-hours by 2030 compared with 2019, supply margins will be comfortable in the 2026-2030 period, RTE said. That’s as the production of renewables increases, even if the government’s goal of quadrupling solar output by 2028 is out of reach, the grid chairman said.

The rise in power demand will be driven by electrical heating, electric cars and green hydrogen production. However, France’s peak power demand will actually fall by 2030 as drivers and hydrogen producers will seek to avoid using electricity when prices are high, it said.

Electric cars may require about 20 terawatt-hours of power in a decade, according to RTE.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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