why power cuts are a hot topic for the government

Emmanuel Macron calls on the French to “be at the rendezvous of sobriety”. By encouraging the population and businesses to make efforts to reduce their energy consumption, the government hopes to avoid the worst scenario for this winter: power cuts. But the executive no longer rules out this possibility. Franceinfo explains why the subject is politically sensitive.

How will the French spend the winter? The forecasts have rarely been so gloomy on the front of electricity production in the country. No less than 32 of the 56 nuclear reactors in the EDF fleet are shut down, gas supplies are threatened by the conflict in Ukraine and the arrival of a winter cold snap cannot be ruled out. “We have lost all our margins to meet the demand for electricity”warned Xavier Piechaczyk, chairman of the management board of RTE (manager of the electricity transmission network) on Friday, September 2, in an interview with Echoes.

The Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, did not rule out the scenario of “rotating load shedding”. “That is to say that we cut over a short period of less than two hours, by district”, detailed Thursday, September 1, the head of government at the microphone of France Inter. To escape it, you would have to “French consumption drops by 15% at the most tense hours”assessed Xavier Piechaczyk.

“If the planets are misaligned (harsh winter, French people not disciplined enough on eco-gestures) and if we cannot compensate for the electricity deficit, we will have to resort to this load shedding and perhaps on a regular basis”, warns Clément Le Roy, partner in charge of energy at Wavestone. The Ministry of Energy Transition assumes to demand efforts from companies, before asking households, “who are already participating in the sobriety effort”.

“The subject is by nature explosive”analyzes Nicolas Goldberg, energy expert at Colombus Consulting. “If there are cuts, it will generate debates and a social discontent that is difficult to manage”. The closure of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in June 2020, judged by some to be premature but assumed by Emmanuel Macron in recent days, is in particular one of the subjects which have already returned to the table.

A sign that the question of possible winter cuts is thorny, the criteria for classifying users with a view to possible load shedding are difficult to find. “The population can understand, provided that the debate takes place”, believes Julien Bayou, national secretary of Europe Ecology-The Greens. The deputy EELV adds however: “But it feels like the tough choices are made in secret.” Interruptions will take place “where it is most effective for the network and maintaining system power and in such a way as to reach the lowest priority users”, assures the Ministry of Energy Transition, without further details. RTE is responsible for planning these outages for the French State.

“It’s an organized, controlled and targeted plan. We distribute the effort throughout the territory.”

The procedure is supervised. It is first up to each prefecture to draw up the list of priority sites that cannot be offloaded. They are defined by a 1990 decree: hospitals, signage, lighting, industrial sites which present a safety issue, etc. “By default, all others can be included in the clipping planespecifies RTE. But among these, only a small part would actually be deprived of electricity”. Power lines, representing blocks of approximately 100 megawatts (approximately 100,000 households according to RTE), can then be cut for a maximum of two hours, on specific time slots: between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., then between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

In the field, there are 500 “electricity switchers”, employees of Enedis (manager of the electricity distribution network), who will remotely control the cuts from control towers which observe the balance of the network 24 hours a day. A device “adjusted as closely as possible to the electricity needs of each territory“says a document from Enedis sent to companies and which franceinfo has obtained. But the details of this adjustment raise thorny questions for the government.

Which companies will be among the priority customers? Article 2 of the decree of July 5, 1990 specifies that in the event of cuts, it is necessary to preserve the “iindustrial installations which cannot suffer, without suffering damage, interruption in their operation, particularly those of them which are of interest to national defence”. A sentence subject to interpretation. “What we are looking at is first of all the companies that cannot stop: hospitals, defense companies, a certain number of agrifood companies”detailed the Minister Delegate in charge of Industry, Roland Lescure, Monday September 5 on franceinfo.

“It reminds us of the debates we had on the Covid”underlines Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Energy Center of the Jacques-Delors Institute. “Not all food is essential. How do you categorize a confectionery factory, for example?” If specific directives will be sent to the prefectures, they are not intended to be made public, confirms the Ministry of Energy Transition.

For their part, some right-wing opponents ask another question: why favor households rather than businesses? “In order for us to be able to play PlayStation in winter at 7 p.m., we will sacrifice production tools. I find that unacceptable”regrets Raphaël Schellenberger, deputy of Haut-Rhin and deputy secretary general of Les Républicains.

“We need a real debate to know who has priority.”

Raphaël Schellenberger, deputy LR

at franceinfo

Same questions for individuals: will certain geographical areas be preserved and others sacrificed? “The risk is that the power cuts concern France’s ‘yellow vests’, and not the 10th arrondissement of Pariswarns Thomas Pellerin-Carlin. There is an essential issue of social justice.” If load shedding became necessary, their distribution would first depend on the technical characteristics of the electricity network, assures RTE. “We choose the area most likely to relieve the network”explains Clément Le Roy, partner in charge of energy at Wavestone.

Some French regions are indeed more fragile. “Historically, Brittany and the Paca region are ‘energy peninsulas’, because they are less interconnected to the network and have almost no means of their own production”, continues Clément Le Roy. They are therefore more exposed to the risk of cuts. And you also have to distribute the effort so that the network remains stable. “We cannot, for example, concentrate all the cuts on one part of France. We must balance the whole”specifies RTE.

But beyond the technical constraints, can cities be favored over the countryside? “It would be the worst solution. You can’t treat urban and non-urban dwellers differently.“, worries Bruno Millienne, MoDem deputy from Yvelines and vice-president of the sustainable development commission at the National Assembly. If the scenarios are communicated, “they will be studied very carefully”says the elected official, convinced that France will escape this extreme situation.

“Today, people expect absolute equality of treatment between everyone. It would be complicated to explain only to some that they are penalized.”

Bruno Millienne, MoDem MP

at franceinfo

The cuts could even concern “high risk patients”. “People with respirators at home, it is not even forbidden to cut off the power to them”deplores the deputy LR Raphaël Schellenberger who would like us to use the network of intelligent electricity meters Linky to carry out more targeted cuts in individuals.

For the time being, Enedis plans “a gradual communication, as the hypotheses are confirmed” for these 4,800 susceptible patients. In the event of load shedding, they will receive an SMS indicating the time and date on which they will be deprived of electricity. “In France, we haven’t seen this for so long that it seems unthinkable”notes Nicolas Goldberg, energy expert at Colombus Consulting. “VSa can create a feeling of downgrading“.

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