Energy. Will France avoid cuts this winter?

Emmanuel Macron was just waiting for this: the tricolor leader can finally put on his favorite costume, that of the captain in the storm or, more precisely, of the warlord in the face of adversity. The energetic “defense council” which is being held this Friday (see opposite) is obviously part of this martial atmosphere. It’s necessary “prepare for the worst-case scenario”, that is to say the total interruption of gas deliveries from Russia to Europe for the whole winter, warns the Minister for Energy Transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher. But for now, despite the drumbeats and threats of power cuts he is waving, the executive is limiting himself to doing “proof of pedagogy”, hoping that households and businesses will limit their energy consumption on their own, also crossing their fingers that the frost will bypass France this fall and winter. Will this strategy avoid cuts in the months to come? The experts we interviewed say they are rather worried.

“To get through the winter, we need full gas stocks and supplies”, summarizes Thierry Bros, specialist in energy issues. So let’s start with our storage capabilities. The government has set a target of 100% filling by November 1. Manufacturers estimate that they are already at 90%. It remains to know 90% or 100% of what? It is actually about “90% of the volume that has been marketed”, explains Frédéric Ben, CGT delegate at Storengy. This subsidiary of Engie, the world leader in underground natural gas storage, can store up to 108 terawatts of gas. And Engie marketed 92 to 93 terawatts. The stocks the gas distributor is talking about represent 90% of these 92 to 93 terawatts.

On March 15, there would no longer be enough gas to supply households and industries… THIERRY BROS, ENERGY ISSUES SPECIALIST

Since 2013 and the closure of several storage places, the CGT union of Storengy has been warning. “We have often been criticized for crying wolf, but it is clear that today it is a reality”, notes Frédéric Ben. Even without a crystal ball, the gas industry representative believes that with “88% filling of storage sites with high calorific gas, which supply most of the territory in France, this is not enough to fill the 17% of gas imported from Russia”. The fears are all the more legitimate since a possible lack of gas would also lead to a drop in electricity production. Frédéric Ben recalls that, last year, 11.6% of electricity was produced from combined gas power plants.

Supplies are peaking

To manage to gradually do without Russian hydrocarbons, the Europeans have fired all the woods with other Canadian, American, Qatari or Algerian suppliers. The arrival of LNG tankers has been multiplied by 70 over one year compared to the months of January and February 2021. Despite this noria, the account is not there. The French government could have “fill all underground storage and LNG terminals”. This was not done due to gas prices, which trade between 300 and 500 euros per megawatt. “The cost has been multiplied by 5 or 8, which is unbearable for many gas suppliers”, explains the cegetist. However, the government could have forced the three companies that have public service missions to fill their storage spaces. Engie has the means, it whose results increased by 34% in the first half.

Conversely, the government’s choice is “purely financial”, laments Frédéric Ben. Can France still hope for substantial supplies in the coming weeks? “Before the current crisis, Russian exports accounted for 40% of European Union (EU) demandrecalls Thierry Bros. This figure was lowered to 15% and European countries replaced the missing Russian gas with LNG (liquefied natural gas). The problem is that we won’t be able to go much further…” In other words, if the Russian president decides to completely close the floodgates on October 1, the EU will simply not be able to cope: “We would miss the equivalent of 20 billion cubic meters for the entire winter. This means that, on March 15, there would no longer be enough gas to supply households and industries…”

Because we already know that the cavalry will arrive too late for this winter. The floating LNG terminal project in Le Havre may have taken advantage of the law on purchasing power to bypass environmental authorization procedures, but this floating unit supplied by TotalÉnergies with GRTgaz will not come into operation until September 2023 It will then be able to inject the equivalent of 60% of the Russian gas imported by France in 2021, or around 10% of French annual consumption, according to the prefecture of Seine-Maritime.

The electricity fairy could have taken over from our evanescent gas. Except that it does not fly very high either. “Dependence on Russian gas is less important here than in other countriesadmits Thierry Bros. But nuclear weighs heavily in our energy mix and we will have to go through the winter with around 100 terawatt hours (TW) of electricity missing, due to the shutdown of our reactors. » Currently, only 24 of the 56 reactors in the fleet are in service, the 32 others being shut down for maintenance. So EDF hopes to generate between 280 to 300 terawatt hours (TWh) this winter, against around 400 terawatt hours in normal times.

Condemned to sobriety and shedding

Elisabeth Borne has reaffirmed, this Thursday, on France Inter, that she “Is really counting on EDF to ensure its restart program in the coming weeks”the incumbent cannot go faster than the bad music imposed by the state’s underinvestment. “We, with the sector, we did not hire people to build twelve power stations. We have hired to close twelve of them ”let go of the outgoing CEO of EDF, Jean-Bernard Lévy, during a debate at the universities of the Medef which made waves.

For the current as for the gas, we therefore cross our fingers. Provided it is not too cold to avoid consumption peaks. Provided that it rains well this fall in order to replenish the stocks of dry hydroelectric dams. And as long as the weather is nice and there is wind, unlike last winter, in order to support solar and wind power production, Petits Poucets which only represent 13.1% of primary energy consumption. Finally, the government is counting on the last two coal-fired power stations which it had planned to close this year. If Cordemais (Loire-Atlantique) worked from January to March and seems ready, it is not so simple for its counterpart in Saint-Avold (Moselle), whose owner, GazelEnergie, had to run after its employees that he had made redundant in the spring. And after coal, at a high price.

“In qquantity, it might be a bit tight, admits the economist Jacques Percebois. If France saturated the interconnections with its neighbors by importing electricity in August when it had been exporting until then, it will not be able to repeat this winter. Because it will then not be sure that there are sellers on the market. » This is why the government is condemned to its calls for “sobriety”. And if the situation gets complicated, RTE will take matters in hand, according to an alert system, Ecowatt, already tested last winter by the manager of the current transmission network, ranging from ” erasure ” voluntary consumption of companies and individuals to forced cuts against the most energy-intensive companies, up to “load shedding” rotating through voltage drops or zoned and momentary outages. “Individuals should not be too affected because we will not want to touch their electric heating”reassures Jacques Percebois.


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