France’s large nuclear power industry means it is far less reliant on Russian fossil fuels than its European neighbours. So why is it so worried about power shortages this winter?
Russia's decision to slash gas exports to Europe in response to sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine threatens to make for a colder than average winter.
President Emmanuel Macron has warned the French to prepare for difficult times.
France is somewhat protected because unlike Germany, which imports 55 percent of its gas from Russia, Russian imports make up just 17 percent of France's gas supply, with the lion's share coming from Norway.
Gas is used mainly for heating buildings, in industry and to produce electricity.
In anticipation of the Russian cuts, France began stocking up from alternative sources.
Earlier this month French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said its gas storage facilities were more than 90 percent full.
“France is well-prepared,” he said.
In any case, most of France’s electricity – around two-thirds – is generated through its nuclear power plants.
-- Electricity blunder costs French power company €60m But that power network is under strain with more than half of the country’s 56 nuclear plants currently offline, either for routine maintenance or safety issues linked to corrosion.
Reduced nuclear supply has led France to call on its neighbours – notably the UK – to provide extra electricity via undersea cables.
The energy crunch, along with soaring prices, has forced several energy-intensive companies, including glass maker Duralex, to scale down production or to temporarily shut down.
'Reassuring but not realistic'
In a bid to reassure, France’s majority-state-owned electricity provider EDF has announced that all nuclear plants will be up and running by the end of the year.
“The signal is reassuring but not realistic,” says Yves Marignac, a nuclear expert with Negawatt think tank, which works on energy transition.
-- France vows to restart stricken nuclear reactors before winter He considers the timetable too ambitious.
“There is no way EDF could restart all of the 32 reactors by this winter. Even EDF’s schedule of restarting them gradually with an end by February is not likely to happen [...] The repairs can’t technically be completed in such a short period,” Marignac says.
This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen to Yves Marignac here.
Wind power, an unpopular alternative
Nuclear is vaunted for being a low-carbon energy – crucial at a time when the world is facing not just an energy crisis but a climate crisis.
Yet the dependence of nuclear reactors on uranium means it cannot be considered a renewable energy, unlike wind power, which France is also developing.
It aims to increase the amount of electricity produced through wind farms from 8 percent to 15 percent within a decade.
-- Does France's emphasis on nuclear power guarantee its energy independence? There are 8,000 wind farms across the country, while the first offshore wind farm was opened in June in St Nazaire in Brittany.
Many other projects are in the pipeline, but they face growing opposition.
The Somme in the north of France has 747 farms, more than any other department. Though they bring in much needed revenue, locals have taken legal action to try and stop wind farm projects.
They cite noise, damage to wildlife, and above all the way the towering turbines impact the landscape.
Passing the buck?
In the run up to this year’s presidential elections, politicians tapped into the discontent to win votes.
Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally, promised to dismantle all wind farms.
Right-wing politician Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region which has the biggest concentration of wind turbines in France, has funded anti-windfarm groups.
“People are fed up with being surrounded by wind turbines,” he said. “Landscapes and nature are part of the French art de vivreand we’re degrading it. If we want carbon-free energy we must continue to support nuclear.”
Nuclear expert Marignac says opposition to onshore wind power plants has been fuelled by people from the nuclear industry and the right.
-- No 'green' defence of nuclear energy, warns French MEP “The right wing and especially the far right have been extremely vocal against wind power, calling for protecting rural areas from this kind of 'invasion'," he says.
It’s based on the idea that reactors deliver cheap, low-carbon, guaranteed electricity, and that therefore local wind power is unnecessary. But he contests this.
“The nuclear industry and its supporters are trying to escape the responsibility of the current crisis and put the responsibility on the shoulders of the government and the pro-renewable movement,” he states.
“But that can’t stand in the long run. It’s crystal clear that it's the failure of the nuclear industry itself, together with the high level of dependency of the French electric system [on] this nuclear fleet, that has led to the current crisis.”
Energy efficiency and sufficiency
Faced with the nuclear industry’s shortcomings and slow progress on renewables, France must find other supplies if it’s to avoid power cuts this winter.
It has taken the controversial decision to re-open a coal-fired plant in Saint-Avold in the east of France in October.
And like many of its European neighbours, it's banking on reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency measures.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has called on companies to cut their energy use by 10 percent compared to 2019, and to come up with energy-saving plans.
-- French businesses put on notice as threat of power rationing looms Individual households are also being asked to make an effort.
For Marignac, the convergence of an energy and climate crisis means “there’s more room for a boost for renewables”. It's also an opportunity to move forward on energy sufficiency.
“Because of this crisis but also because of the overall unsustainability of our over-consumption patterns, most people understand the need for sufficiency so are ready to respond to what the government is demanding,” he says.
But this is conditional on such measures being "fairly implemented" across the board.
More videos available on http://www.english.rfi.fr/