Update: Article published on 03/28/22 at 18:29 and updated on 03/19/22 at 9:41 with details from the Ministry of Ecological Transition.
In Saint-Avold, in Moselle, the Emile Huchet coal-fired power plant will close its doors on March 31 after 71 years of operation, as mandated by the Energy and Climate Law, which aims to put France on a carbon neutral trajectory. by 2050. But the urgency of reducing our dependence on Russian gas, combined with the very low availability of French nuclear power, could give a completely unexpected second wind. The Czech company GazelEnergie, which runs the plant, told La Tribune that it is actually awaiting a new decree that will set conditions for its reopening.
“We are going to stop on March 31 as planned. Our employees will be able to take advantage of the plan that was offered to them within the framework of the PSE,” explains Camille Jaffrelo, Chief of Staff to the President of GazelEnergie. “But, if it turns out that next winter we will have to respond to a system security issue, and this seems to be adding up, we could restart the car. However, legally we need a new decree, which, in particular, establishes the number of hours of production. These are the topics that are being discussed. Until there is a decision from the state, we will not move,” she continues.
To resume operations, the plant must face technical, social and supply constraints. “There is almost no coal left on the site, and we need to restore the workforce”, notes Camille Giafrelo, while the site currently has 87 employees and the same number of subcontractors. The 600 MW installed section also has to turn to other suppliers, and some of the coal used today comes from Russia. An option that is no longer possible, GazelleEnergy assures.
New decree on the resumption of the plant
According to GazelleEnergia, the government’s early decision to publish this decree depends on two elements: the results of an EDF audit on the readiness of its nuclear fleet for the winter of 2022/2023, as well as a report from RTE (electricity operator). transmission network), which must update their forecast scenarios for next winter, in particular by studying production capacity of ten gas-fired power plants in France.
Because in order to reduce our dependence on Russian gas, a drop in demand is inevitable. “If we reduce the flow of gas to France, we must reduce the use that is divided between household consumption, industry and the production of electricity from gas.”, — comments Camilla Giafrelo. Thus, controllable coal-fired power plants could be used to a greater extent to compensate for the lower output, which is also controllable, of gas-fired power plants.
By contacting the editors, the Ministry of Ecological Transition confirmed that the topic was being discussed. so “The work of the RTE may conclude that it is worthwhile to authorize a timely restart of this plant,” we explain surrounded by Barbara Pompili.
“In the case of temporary operation next winter, production will be carried out under two conditions: the absence of Russian coal supplies and the full offset of greenhouse gas emissions through the operation of the plant in order to neutralize the “relevant climate impact”the ministry said in a statement.
Factory running at full capacity
Amid an energy crisis, the 70-year-old Saint-Avold plant is now running at full capacity. “It’s been a very long time since we’ve been asked about this”, – confesses Sylvain Krebs, manager of the coal park, at the France Inter microphone. In the past three months, the station has produced more electricity than in all of 2021. “In the first quarter of 2022, the plant will run 1,500 hours compared to 800 hours in the previous quarter.”clarifies Camille Giafrelo.
In France, the Saint-Avolde power plant is one of the last two coal-fired power plants still connected to the grid after the closure of the Le Havre and Gardan power stations in Provence. The second still active is Cordemais, located in the Loire-Atlantique. It also had to cease operations in 2022 to fulfill Emmanuel Macron’s promise to close all coal-fired power plants in France by the end of his mandate. But a few months ago, its closure was pushed back to 2024 or even 2026. EDF has abandoned the conversion project while RTE believes plant support on the network is essential while the region suffers from eleven years of delays that have accumulated on Flamanville’s EPR site.
26 nuclear reactors shut down
Apart from the urgency of reducing our dependence on Russian gas, the increased use of fuel oil (twice as much CO2 emissions as gas) is also directly related to the historically low availability of the French nuclear fleet. The latter still suffers from maintenance delays associated with the first containment, to which is added a large decade-long inspection program and a serial corrosion defect.
Today, according to EDF, 26 reactors out of 56 in the fleet have been shut down. In particular, 19 of them are intended for maintenance or refueling. These are scheduled stops. Three reactors are accidentally shut down due to a technical malfunction. Finally, four other reactors have been shut down for a preventive check specifically related to the stress corrosion phenomenon. The serial defect was first observed at two reactors at the Sivo power plant in December last year.
As a result, nuclear power generation has reached 1991 levels, as estimated by the Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE). Faced with concerns about power shortages, a decree issued last February temporarily eased restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Thus, the ceiling has increased to around 1,000 hours of work through the end of February, compared to the ceiling normally limiting them to 750 hours per year.
Coal to help Germany, Bulgaria and Italy
“With or without a temporary expansion of the Saint-Avold power plant, the production of electricity from coal in France will remain extremely low (less than 1%),” emphasizes the Ministry of Ecological Transition. The possible operation of the Saint-Avold power plant next winter, associated with an exceptional context, will not call into question the overall trajectory of France’s exit from coal, which has led to the permanent closure of the Le Havre and Gardanne sites over the past two years. .
France is not the only country betting big on coal to counter the energy crisis and secure supplies next winter. In Germany, the government is exploring the possibility of optimizing its production capacity by restoring mothballed coal-fired power plants or expanding the activities of those whose closure is imminent. By 2024, about 5 GW of generating capacity was to be turned off.
“We are looking into which coal-fired power plants can be brought back online in an emergency or stay on the grid for longer than planned.”explained Markus Krebber, Chairman of the Board of RWE, during a press conference. “This will not be a departure from the planned exit from coal in 2030. (goal set by the government, ed.). Maximum side step for a limited time”he continued.
Earlier, Bulgaria also announced an indefinite postponement of the closure of its coal-fired power plants, despite being one of the countries in the European Union most tied to black fuel. In 2020, coal provided almost a quarter of the nation’s electricity.
In a similar vein, Mario Draghi’s Italian government approved emergency measures earlier this month to alleviate potential gas shortages, including the option of using its coal-fired power plants.