France has said it should be able to provide Britain with power at critical moments if electricity supplies come under strain this winter, despite problems with nuclear reactors that have forced it to rely on imports.
Grid operators in France and Great Britain have been in discussions about energy supplies in recent months, with authorities on both sides of the Channel signalling they will need imports to avoid power cuts this winter.
France is Europe’s biggest power exporter. But a record number of outages and maintenance stoppages at its fleet of 56 nuclear reactors — which reached a peak in the middle of this year when more than half were offline — have for the first time turned the country into a net importer.
The problems in France have compounded western Europe’s energy crisis in the wake of Russia’s decision to shut off gas exports via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline at the end of August.
Fears about possible energy shortages this winter escalated last week when National Grid, the company that oversees Britain’s electricity and gas systems, warned of the potential for rolling three-hour blackouts in the worst-case scenario that it is unable to secure sufficient gas and power supplies from the continent, particularly during prolonged cold periods.
However, French grid operator RTE told the Financial Times that France would probably still be in a position to export power to Britain at moments of extreme stress.
“France and the UK don’t have their peak times at the same moment,” said Thomas Veyrenc, RTE’s executive director in charge of strategy.
“You can have a situation in which France is exporting to Britain but importing from all other countries. We can have a position as a net importer but still be an exporter to the UK at moments when [it] is running into difficulties,” Veyrenc added.
France shares three subsea electricity power cables with Britain. During a normal winter, the UK relies on imports from France to meet demand, particularly during the peak hours of 5pm-8pm. But the UK has been a net power exporter to France this year because of the problems with the French nuclear fleet.
British officials are also cautiously optimistic that flows between the two countries can continue. France’s electricity needs are generally greatest between 8am and 1pm rather than in the evening because of its large industrial base, UK officials said. This could mean flows switch directions at different times of the day to meet peak demand in both countries.
Nevertheless, analysts remain nervous about whether energy supplies will continue to flow across borders in Europe this winter.
One of Germany’s grid operators warned this month that it may have to slash electricity exports to France and other countries to prevent a breakdown of its own power system. The Norwegian government in August also raised the prospect of curbing exports to European neighbours due to low water levels at its hydro power stations.
“My advice to everyone is to pray for a mild winter,” said Niall Trimble, managing director of the consultancy The Energy Contract Company.