Energy. What do coal-fired power plants represent in French electricity production?

Closed last March, the Saint-Avold coal-fired power station, in Moselle, restarted production on Monday morning. The decision to reopen this site was taken a few months ago by the government in the face of the energy crisis and the fear of power cuts this winter, linked in particular to the shutdown of around half of the nuclear fleet.

With that of Cordemais in Loire-Atlantique, the Saint-Avold power plant is today the only one in France to produce electricity with coal. But for what capacity?

A tiny part of electricity production

In 2021, only 0.7% (3.8 TWh) of total electricity production (522.9 TWh) was provided by coal, therefore at the Cordemais and Saint-Avold power plants, according to figures from Transport Network of Electricity (RTE). The vast majority (69%) of the electricity produced in 2021 was via nuclear. Coal comes almost last of the modes of electricity production in France, behind the atom, hydraulics (12%), wind power (7%), gas (6.3%), solar (2.7% ) and biomass (1.9%). But remains ahead of fuel oil (0.4% of the electricity produced in 2021).

Since Monday morning, the share of electricity produced by coal has approximately doubled compared to previous weeks. Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m., France produced 633 MWh thanks to coal, or 1% of total production. This Tuesday, still at 5 p.m., RTE noted that 1,248 MWh (1.2 GW), or 2% of the mix, came from Saint-Avold or Cordemais.

This is still much less than nuclear (34 GW), hydro (10.5 GW), gas (9 GW) or electricity imported from abroad (3.1 GW).

« It’s better than nothing, but it’s very little »

In total, it will take more than 500,000 tonnes of coal to run Saint-Avold until the end of March. When the plant is operating at full capacity, it will be able to produce up to 600 Megawatt hours. Enough to supply a third of the homes in the Grand-Est region. For its part, the Cordemais power station has a capacity of 1,200 MWh.

1800 Megawatt-hours in total – if the power stations operate at full speed – which seems little in terms of French consumption. For comparison, this Tuesday between 5:15 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., France consumed nearly 62,000 MWh according to TrackMyWatt.

Which makes Michel Deshaies, energy specialist and professor of geography at the University of Lorraine, say that restarting Saint-Avold and the production capacities of coal-fired power plants cannot be the only solutions to meet the risk of cuts this winter:

Around 7 p.m. in January, we have already reached the 90 GW (90,000 MWh) consumed in previous years. In winter when it freezes, as soon as we lose 1° and go from -1°C to -2°C, for example, we estimate that we need to find 2 GW of additional production capacity if it is at a time when we consume a lot. So 600 MWh is better than nothing, but it’s very little.

Michel Deshaies

« But coal is used to produce when there are peaks in consumption and it’s cold, » he points out nonetheless. The researcher also notes that all the electricity produced by Saint-Avold as by any French energy infrastructure decreases the electricity that France must buy from its neighbors by the same amount.

Very polluting energy

Coal, on the other hand, remains the champion of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Agency for Energy Transition (Ademe), a coal-fired power plant emits 1,058 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour produced. While the operation of a nuclear power plant emits 6 gCO2e/kWh. We are between 9 and 10 grams for wind, 10 grams for hydroelectric or 443 grams for natural gas.

Although they only produce 1 to 2% of French electricity, the last two power stations at Cordemais and Saint-Avold alone emit around 35% of the electricity sector’s greenhouse gases.


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