France fires up coal power in policy reversal over feared nuclear shortfall

France is to allow its last two operational coal-fired power plants to produce excessive emissions this winter to stave off the threat of electricity shortages resulting from the closure of some nuclear plants.
Under a government decree to be passed by the end of the month, the coal plants will likely be ramped up to 1,000 hours of operation until 28 February – as opposed to the 700 hours permitted over the entire year. Usually coal makes up for no more than 2 percent of France’s energy needs – far behind that of nuclear power, which drives 70 percent of electricity.

Germany’s media was quick to point out the paradox of the situation, which comes amid a standoff between Berlin and Paris over their respective energy policies. Although Germany still relies heavily on coal, it is phasing out both coal and nuclear power – the latter by the end of 2022 – with the overall intention of relying on renewables for 80 percent of its future electricity mix.

Power reduction
Meanwhile with a dozen of its 56 reactors shut down for maintenance, France is not producing as much power as usual. BFM TV says this puts France’s nuclear fleet at 78 percent of production capacity. Recent cold temperatures have exacerbated fears of an electricty shortfall, including to the nuclear power that France exports. However the Ministry of Ecological Transition told AFP the move to “revive” coal would not change the timetable for the closure of France’s remaining two active coal-fired power plants: Cordemais, in the Loire Valley, and Saint-Avold, in Moselle, which borders Germany.

While the Moselle plant is due to definitively come off the grid in March, the one in Cordemais could continue operating until 2024 because of what’s been described as “network tension risks”. Scientists at the UN’s IPCC climate change panel say highly polluting coal-fired power generation emits 68 times more CO2 than nuclear power plants to produce electricity. Coal plants have already been shut down in Le Havre, northern France, and Gardanne, in the south.

EU nuclear ambitions
On 31 December last year, the European Commission unveiled a controversial proposal for labelling nuclear and gas power plants as “green” under its taxonomy investment rulebook. Germany and France have “agreed to disagree” on the decision, but if a majority of member states support it, the new rules will become EU law from 2023. France has been a main driver of the move. In an interview with the French daily the Journal du Dimanche on 9 January, European Commissioner Thierry Breton said the EU needed to massively invest in new generation nuclear power plants.

The Frenchman estimated a budget of more than €500 billion between now and 2050 – of which €50 billion would be spent on existing plants before 2030. “The ecological transition will bring about an industrial revolution on an unprecedented scale,” Breton said. The EU wants to become the world’s first carbon neutral continent by 2050. To achieve this, the bloc has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 55 percent this decade.