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Power outages ahead

2022-12-06 | France
Power outages ahead

According to the November report from RTE, the company running the electricity grid in France, the risk of blackouts due to an inability to meet electricity demand is real from January onwards... as long as temperatures do not drop before then.

Although the affected regions will be warned in advance, the supply stoppages will produce mobile network and emergency telephone outages. They may even affect other power plants and set off a chain reaction. Small and medium-sized companies are buying up diesel generators in a frenzy to avoid inventory losses and production stoppages at critical times. How could one of the major European powers come to this?

Will these only be "planned outages"?

According to government plans, these would be only temporary, rotating power outages to prevent the collapse of the entire grid when demand is imminently likely to exceed supply. Critical facilities such as hospitals or fire stations would be covered and only the cell phone network - but also emergency numbers - would be disrupted.

However, the planning for this eventuality has been rushed to say the least and the press was quick to discover that the government's plans were blithely disconnecting.... key hydroelectric plants, putting the system at risk of a chain reaction that would make a general collapse of the grid inevitable.

EDF and RTE have since corrected the plans, but mistrust and a sense of fragility is already in place.

Why do official reports particularly fear the month of January?

Madrid during the snowstorm that accompanied the Filomena blizzard, January 2021

Madrid during the snowstorm that accompanied the Filomena blizzard in January 2021

In France, a temperature drop of one degree increases electricity consumption by 2 GW, which roughly corresponds to two nuclear reactors. January is the month when intense cold usually makes its appearance and French nuclear power plants are today producing a maximum of about 34GW, 64% of their normal capacity.

At best, and only if the newly nationalized EDF keeps to the promised schedule of repair, overhaul and restart of the plants, could an output of 40GW be reached in January. The plan is optimistic but increasingly dubious not least because EDF does not have a history that allows optimism in these matters, but in reality it represents a 20% drop compared to the average nuclear production at those dates.

Could the shortfall be made up by renewable energies? Only if there is a lucky strike. The main renewable input is wind power... which is capricious. A cold snap with little wind would leave the system below the expected demand even though thanks to the industrial crisis demand is 7% lower than usual.

It is no coincidence that Russian energy reports, veritable war reports, closely follow wind measures in Europe. The Russian ruling class hopes to double the European military pressure in Ukraine by [General Winter's offensive] but it also needs Colonel Wind's non-appearance](https://t.me/medvedev_telegram/224).

Why are the French nuclear power stations stopped?

Trillo nuclear power plant, Spain

Nuclear power plant in Trillo, Spain, which is now 34 years old

First of all: The bet on nuclear energy is strategic for French capital.

Crucial militarily because it allows France to maintain its nuclear arsenal and to assert it in the intra-European imperialist game.

Crucial when it comes to the Green Deal, because it allows it to be safe from energy speculation and to order the transfer of income from labor to capital which is the entire point of the Green Deal without fuss - or so Macron at least sells it.

And above all it is fundamental for its imperialist project because it allows Macron to sell, directly from the Presidency, Areva nuclear power plants throughout the East and "cheap" nuclear electricity to Spain and other neighboring countries, including Germany, every time gas hits a peak.

However, the French nuclear plant had three major problems.

  1. The management of the French electricity monopoly (EDF) has been during the last decades like that of all big monopolies: exploit the existing pool to the maximum, make work more precarious and improve the profit account at the cost of reducing investments. No new plants have been built and connected since 1997.
  2. Most of the reactors are around 40 years old. They were designed with pre-Fukushima safety measures and updating them was not easy. Also, there is simply no knowledge of the problems that can arise after four decades of operation. So the French nuclear authority demanded the implementation of substantive safety and monitoring improvements to allow extending their lifetime.
  3. With obsolescence nipping at their heels and a brutal cost of renewal and updating as a sword of Damocles, EDF and the Macronite government staked the renewal of the nuclear plant pool on the new investment taxonomy of the Green Deal. Should nuclear be considered green, because it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, French nuclear companies could apply for Next Generation funds and receive subsidies without Brussels getting in the way. But the taxonomy battle dragged on much longer than expected in the labyrinth of EU institutions and imperialist interests.

As it was, on December 15, 2021, EDF announced that it was going to halt production at the Chooz (Ardennes) nuclear power plant, for just over a month. A few days earlier, they had acknowledged the discovery of failures that could affect the cooling circuits of the Civaux (Vienne) nuclear power plant, equipped with reactors of the same type. A round of in-depth inspections was then announced for a large part of the nuclear fleet.

They were discovering the last thing they wanted: widespread corrosion in the primary circuit of many of the oldest plants. Shutdowns and emergency intervention plans were implemented at full speed.

In January of this year the number of plants closed for maintenance reached its peak and with it a historic low in nuclear electricity production accompanied by the first warnings of power outages. All at the most untimely moment, when the war against the main European gas supplier, Russia, was leading the whole continent towards energy shortages.

A French problem?

The official map of electricity interconnections in the EU explains why the Spanish bill is the most expensive in Europe

Main electrical interconnections in the EU

All the European press insists during these days that this is a French problem unrelated to the Ukrainian war. Both statements do not even reach half-truths. Not only do the causes of war and underinvestment share common roots, the fact is that in the context of the war and the current energy crisis, the effects can hardly be expected to remain within the hexagon.

The European electricity market is interconnected and with France demanding the maximum of electricity imports -up to 15GW-, even if it did not even come to blackouts, its problems would spread to its neighbors, be they exporters such as the Netherlands, Belgium or Spain, or importers, such as Switzerland.

In the Spanish case, with a small connection due to the historical opposition of the French governments, it still means an increase in demand which, in the context of the gas price cap mechanism established by the governments of Spain and Portugal, becomes transfers of income of up to 1,000 million from the Spanish electricity system to the French one. Transfers that are only very partially balanced by compensation for interconnection saturation.

In the case of countries that usually import energy from France, such as Switzerland, the problem is the reverse: the confederal government is already preparing emergency plans in the face of an almost certain shortage that threatens to collapse the Swiss grid.

What do the tensions in the French power grid mean in the general context of Europe?

  • The state of the French nuclear plant fleet mirrors the state of national capital in a large part of the EU: basic services companies squeezed for years in order to improve profitability by making labor precarious and failing to replenish fixed capital.
  • The French energy crisis, in the pre-war situation, would have reinforced the "Europeanist" discourse of the Green Deal and encouraged a greater degree of interconnection of the electricity systems. The "more Europe" model as a way forward, which was introduced in agricultural policy, was later carried over to vaccines, etc. But in the context of the war against Russia in Ukraine, with gas shortages in the background, it takes on a very different meaning. It will strain the internal conflicts between states and capitals at a time when the US is taking advantage of the weakness accentuated by the war of its European "partners" to relegate them to a situation of dependence.
  • In France, this whole situation not only reveals the fragility of national capital and the increasingly critical situation of its basic infrastructures, but leads the state to plug the patch by releasing new funds. In other words, it will accelerate and intensify the attacks already on the agenda on pensions, unemployment benefits and general living conditions of the workers.
  • Throughout Europe it will lead to an acceleration of the Green Deal in compulsory housing reform such as the one underway in Germany, a cost overload on wages unfeasible at the most basic level in less capitalized countries, which will again rest on wages and pensions, further impoverishing working families by imposing a new transfer of income from labor to capital, in this case that of the construction sector.
  • And the fact is that, both in Europe and in the US, the Green Deal and war go hand in hand and feed each other by reducing the purchasing power of wages while the profitability of capital is maintained or increased, especially for the big capitals and funds that are the core of national capital.
  • Access to energy is a basic universal need, it will not be satisfied by no "sacred union" with the same people who make energy more expensive in order to improve their profitability while pretending that they are doing us a favor by destroying less of the environment and at the same time sustaining a war that massacres workers every day.