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Survival guide in the “big energy bazaar”

IIt will undoubtedly have taken a lot of self-sacrifice, even courage, to tackle a universe where we must master kilowatt-hours and hertz, juggle with the atoms of nuclear fusion and the molecules of methanization, decipher the sometimes contradictory interests between France (home of nuclear power) and Germany (welcome cradle of wind power), shed light on the game of the Russian gas giant Gazprom, recount in detail the phone call from Jean Couture, general delegate to the energy of the government which, one early morning in 1973, the day after the Yom Kippur War, asked EDF boss Marcel Boiteux how many nuclear reactors he would be able to build, and in how long (Boiteux will have before noon to answer !).

Erwan Benezet got into it, and quite well. The journalist, specialist in energy issues at Parisian-Today in Francehas just published a complete work, aptly titled The Grand Bazaar of Energy. The title can be off-putting, as if we could fear getting lost in this intertwining (the cover also displays an electrical outlet with a tangled wire). The book is, however, very educational. He evokes the war in Ukraine and its innumerable consequences on the energy market, France’s great love for nuclear power – an unfortunate love, since successive governments have each abandoned it a little -, the numerous alternatives (the wind, solar, methanization, hydrogen, etc.). Politics and geopolitics are never far away, which are at the origin of all the upheavals in the energy market. Didn’t Russia, decades ago, engage with OPEC precisely to hold a geopolitical lever in its hands?

READ ALSO Electricity prices: EDF’s gigantic challengeThere have been many turning points in the energy sector, such as the two oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. The progress of the world has not been fundamentally changed. This time, observes Erwan Benezet, the turning point is perhaps definitive. Global warming linked to the invasion of Ukraine, which forced many developed countries to rethink their energy sources, is completely changing the situation. “When an expanding society comes up against a material limit, the exhaustion of a resource for example, it naturally does everything possible to overcome the obstacle,” writes the journalist. Its first reflex generally consists of relying on scientific progress, with its sights set on the possibility of exploiting new resources that were until then technically inaccessible. […] Except that this new energy crisis is in reality not comparable to any other. In the previous examples, humanity had moved from wood to coal, then to oil and gas, piling on the sources with a gargantuan appetite whose whole – to paraphrase the philosopher – would exceed the sum of the parts. This time, due to the climate emergency, it is not a question of adding but of subtracting, of definitively eliminating fossil fuels to replace them with their carbon-free counterparts: solar, onshore, offshore, floating wind, geothermal energy, CO capture2electricity storage, hydrogen, and many others…”.

The Grand Bazaar of EnergyErwan Benezet, Arthaud, 293 pages, 21 euros.


Reconnecting Ukraine

The first response to Russian aggression consists of connecting the Ukrainian, but also Moldovan, electricity network to the European system, the largest in the world in terms of connected power, with 24 countries and 400 million inhabitants, which runs from Portugal to west to Turkey in the far east. Ukraine was until then historically synchronized with the Russian electricity network, but since the invasion, it has disassociated itself from it. […] This involves, as RTE explained at the time, providing electrical support to Ukraine in the event of difficulty via seven very high voltage lines, including one coming from Romania which was rehabilitated for the occasion. The country then benefits from a production capacity of 50 gigawatts (GW). But given the collapse of the economy at the start of the conflict, and with the end of winter coming, the needs are only around fifteen gigawatts. It also has significant stocks of coal to fuel its thermal power stations.

European electricity transmission network managers will thus be able to help, if necessary, to stabilize the Ukrainian electricity system. If a lack of electricity production occurs, for example […], they will be able to provide emergency electricity. “From Lisbon to kyiv, all the means of production are linked together and beat to the same pulse [50 hertz, le nombre de « pulsations » par seconde, soit la fréquence du réseau électrique]. If one fails, the others can come and relieve the entire system,” RTE is assured.

Agnès Pannier-Runacher remembers this particular moment, with such strong symbolism: “We have forgotten it a little today, but this maneuver was something,” says the minister. This involved serious risks, because we absolutely must not unbalance our own network. A problem in Ukraine could spill over to Spain, like what happened in Germany in 2006 [des coupures en cascade avaient été provoquées par l’arrêt d’une ligne à haute tension enjambant le fleuve Ems, dans le nord-ouest du pays, lors du passage d’un bateau de croisière norvégien]. And this was achieved in less than three weeks by the network operators, the European equivalents of RTE, the EDF subsidiary which manages electricity transmission. A feat. »

How to damage EDF

The former boss of EDF [Henri Proglio, NDLR] now sits on the international board of Rosatom, the Russian public nuclear giant. Anne Lauvergeon, she improvises “Energy” from time to time on the sets of BFMTV. For the two former leaders of the sector, Europe constituted the armed wing of the Bundestag, the German Parliament, while successive French governments gave in to the sirens of liberalism and free competition. The culmination of this “betrayal” at the highest summit of the State, the year 2010, when a legislative tool – the Nome law, acronym for “New organization of the electricity market” – was created to dismantle , not power plants, but EDF itself. It imposes a unique mechanism which obliges EDF to subsidize its competitors by selling them a quarter (and even in 2022 more than a third) of its nuclear electricity at a knockdown price. Enough to create an open market, certainly, but in a completely artificial way.

“An unfair measure, intended to break EDF and taken under Brussels-German pressure, further vilifies Henri Proglio. It worked very well, EDF’s competitors became rich. But not the French. To compensate for the losses, EDF increased its prices. ” To say the least. In fourteen years, between 2007, the date of the opening to competition for individuals, and 2020, electricity prices jumped by an average of 60%, according to figures from the national energy mediator. Very concretely, a household which paid 1,000 euros of annual bill in 2007 (which constituted the national average for a family of four people living in a dwelling of 80 m2 heated with electricity) found himself paying more than 1,600 euros thirteen years later. In February 2021, according to calculations detailed in Le Parisien-Today in France, the only overhaul of the local tax system caused electricity prices for the French to jump by more than 50 euros on average. And again, it was before the energy crisis of 2022, which brought a new twist.

These increases are still insufficient, however, estimated Jean-Bernard Lévy. According to Henri Proglio’s successor between 2014 and 2022, they did not cover the reality of electricity production costs. “The shortfall is considerable, of the order of several billion euros each year,” he says indignantly. […]. We receive 42 euros per megawatt-hour, while the nuclear fleet costs us around fifty euros, without taking into account the cost of its reconstruction. » It is true that Arenh (Regulated access to historic nuclear electricity) has largely contributed to EDF’s catastrophic results in 2022. Since 2011, the group has in fact been obliged to resell part of its nuclear electricity production to other suppliers (42 euros per megawatt-hour, therefore, when the latter regularly exceeds 100 euros on the markets), with the aim of creating the conditions for a competitive market. For now, the measure has rather contributed to abysmal losses: 17.9 billion euros over the year. To compensate for the loss of electricity that it had had to give up, EDF found itself obliged to buy megawatt hours on the market at a high price.

Yves Bréchet is not kind to the nuclear policy of the last twenty years either. During his hearing [devant les députés, NDLR], the former High Commissioner for Atomic Energy (between 2012 and 2018) says he, over his entire career, submitted more than 4,000 pages of different reports to his authorities. He castigates the “zozos” and “lackeys of the prince”, the scientific ignorance of political leaders, the replacement of a “strategic State” by “a talkative State” to explain the setbacks of nuclear power in France. And the physicist concludes with this scathing sentence: “The country’s energy policy was decided by a headless duck. » Don’t throw any more away.

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