Posted Jan 6, 2023, 7:23 AM
We are on November 30, in a circular sent to the prefects, the government asks to prepare all the provisions to deal with possible power cuts. The document is like a bomb. The scenarios put together in the event of a breakdown are reminiscent of the worst hours of Covid-19: schools closed, telephone network interrupted, incentives to stay at home during blackout hours, etc.
If throughout the year, warnings have been issued on the risk of power cuts, the awareness is brutal. France and its nuclear powerhouse, the water tower of electricity in Europe, are no longer infallible. The shock is all the more severe as the French electricity network normally displays very high reliability. The head of distribution Enedis claims about an hour of power outage on average per year, where the rest of Europe oscillates rather around an hour and a half.
The precedent of the 1973 oil shock
To cope, the government is reduced to asking households and businesses to save electricity all over the place. Covering pots, heating offices at night, limiting public lighting… Enough to revive the memory of the 1973 oil crisis which led Pierre Messmer to ban illuminated advertising from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. or even to reduce public broadcasting schedules.
But do not be mistaken, if this context looks like a temporary step back, in reality it prefigures above all the new world of the years to come in which the abundance of energy risks becoming a distant memory.
Firstly because in the short term the supply of the Old Continent remains on the wire. Admittedly, there have been no power cuts in recent weeks and the situation is easing, but this is only possible thanks to a radical drop in electricity consumption which must be confirmed in order to pass any peaks without difficulty. cold to come.
Compensate for the weakness of nuclear power
In addition, new supply tensions are expected next winter if, as several experts believe, there is a shortage of liquefied natural gas. If Chinese demand returns to its 2021 level, Europe could miss 30 billion cubic meters of gas, i.e. half of the stocks to be injected into reserves to get through the winter without a hitch.
This is enough to slow down the proper functioning of gas-fired power stations which are running at full speed to compensate for the weakness of nuclear energy. However, this should also still be the case in 2023, because EDF announces nuclear production slightly higher than that of this year, but still at a historic low point.
In the longer term, the energy savings required of the French also constitute the cornerstone of the electrical system. First, because between now and 2025, the means of production available will barely be enough to meet the demand for electricity. The causes are known, the delay in the start of the Flamanville EPR, renewable projects or the closure of several gigawatts of gas and coal production capacity in recent years.
Reasons to be optimistic
Beyond this period, electricity savings will be essential to enable the electrical system to cope with variations in the production of wind and solar energy, which are intended to take a central place in the production of electricity. electricity, alongside nuclear power plants.
“As of 2035, it will no longer be possible to continue to increase the share of renewable energies without developing flexibility in a very significant way”, RTE recently pointed out in a report on the French energy future. In other words, factories, buildings, homes will have to respond instantly to low consumption alerts on cold winter days, without winds…
The very strong mobilization of the French, who have reduced their electricity consumption by 8.5% over the past month, gives reason for optimism. But if this effort is considerable, it is today very constrained. Companies are closing production lines to deal with too expensive electricity. Employees put down jackets in the office to deal with heating that is idling… In homes, eco-gestures are disparate and not very automated, so that they do not necessarily intervene when the network would have needed it. no more need to pass the peaks. As proof: only 12% of French people program their heating.
“Delete” consumption at the right time
The challenge for the years to come will therefore consist in building the tools and economic models capable of “erasing” consumption at the right time so that power savings are more painless for customers and more useful for the network. The needs in this area are considerable. France has a theoretical reserve of approximately 4 gigawatts of “erasable” consumption thanks to contracts signed with households or businesses. In reality, not all of them can be mobilized. Besides, it will take a lot more. RTE is targeting 6.5 GW in 2028 and 15 GW in 2050 to maintain the decarbonization trajectory.
Solutions to achieve this exist but until now they were not part of the priorities of energy companies. At EDF, the Tempo contract, which offers a bonus to customers who shift their consumption on busy days, has been marketed for many years but remains very confidential. A sign that in the country of abundant nuclear power, it is first and foremost up to the national producer to adapt its electricity production to meet the demand of the French. This mechanism is now showing all its limits and now involves putting the consumer at the center of the game. A real cultural change is ahead of us.