Russia’s Gas War, French Nuclear Woes, Scramble European Climate Action

December 22, 2022

Wall Street Journal:

Europe passed its first winter test without Russian energy, keeping the lights on through this month’s cold blast. The secret to its success: burning more coal than it has in years.

Consuming large amounts of coal represents a difficult choice for European nations that had promised to ditch the carbon-intensive fuelto contain climate change. Russia’s cut to natural-gas supplies after invading Ukraine and outages at French nuclear plants have spurred the revival.

European demand is one reason why the world is on track for record coal consumption in 2022, the International Energy Agency said this month. “Coal will continue to be the global energy system’s largest single source of carbon-dioxide emissions by far,” the intergovernmental organization said, adding that it expects global demand to flatline before falling after 2025.

The effects of war have turbocharged coal’s comeback. But a flaw in Europe’s approach to the transition toward renewable sources of energy has also played a role.

The continent has invested in wind and solar energy while closing dozens of coal-fired power plants over the past decade. When it is cloudy or the wind is low, and demand is high, Europe doesn’t have the capacity to maintain electricity supplies from clean sources.

At that point, power prices rise to encourage utilities to fire up fossil-fuel plants. Gas mostly filled the gap in recent years. But coal has taken the lead of late—partly because Germany and other countries brought plants back online, and partly because gas is so expensive that it is more profitable for utilities to burn coal.



In Europe’s interconnected market, coal power flowed across borders.

At times, Great Britain meets more than half its power demand with wind. On Dec. 11, that fell to less than 4% just as demand jumped, according to National Grid ESO. The power-grid operator ordered two standby coal units to warm up in case they needed to generate power the next day.

National Grid stood the generators down after high U.K. prices pulled in power from the continent and Norway along subsea cables. Some came from France, which passed on power it had imported from Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Italy—and in particular Germany, where coal and lignite plants were running full throttle. 

“It’s a security of supply issue across Europe and the Germans had some plants that they could bring back, so that’s what they did,” said Jean-Paul Harreman, a director at the data analysis and consulting firm. “If the Germans didn’t deliver, then the French would have a problem.”

Wind speeds and temperatures have since picked up while several French nuclear reactors have come back online. But finding ways to meet demand when renewables flicker is one of the biggest challenges facing governments and companies over the next decade, energy executives say.

Neither hydrogen nor batteries, which could store power to be released when wind speeds drop, are ready to be produced or deployed at scale. “I find it hard to say at this point which is the likely winner,” said Pieter de Pous, program leader for fossil-fuel transition at think-tank E3G. Building more grid connections so renewable power can be funneled across borders is also key, he said.

Wall Street Journal:

France has restarted five nuclear reactors over the past week and cut electricity consumption sharply, easing fears the country will have to resort to rolling blackouts this winter.

French officials have been racing to restart the reactors after a rash of outages pushed the country’s nuclear generation to the lowest level in decades, compounding the energy crisis facing Europe after Russia slashed natural-gas deliveries in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The government of President Emmanuel Macron warned last month that it might have to impose targeted power cuts during periods of peak demand this winter to avoid widespread blackouts.  

The discovery of corrosion on pipes near some of the reactor cores led authorities to take 30 of France’s 56 reactors offline earlier this year. Now 41 of them are online. 

Since last week, France’s nuclear generation has exceeded 41,000 megawatts with the restart of the five reactors, just above the 40,000-megawatt threshold below which France’s power-grid manager says the country would be at risk of power cuts. EDF SA, France’s state-controlled power company, is scheduled to bring another four reactors online before the end of year, with around 4,400 megawatts of total capacity.

The restarts have made up for some of the delays EDF experienced this fall when nuclear generation fell below 30,000 megawatts. 

Worker strikes at EDF and the difficulty of repairing the corroded pipes pushed back reactor restart dates by weeks or months.

RTE, the company that runs most of France’s electricity grid, was anticipating around 40,000 megawatts of nuclear generation at the beginning of January. With that amount of nuclear capacity, RTE said it might need to issue an urgent alert next month warning the public to cut electricity consumption, when demand peaks for heating. Officials have been urging households and businesses to turn down their thermostats and take other steps to save energy. Schools have turned down the heat, leaving students chilled as a cold wave has swept across the country.  

The conservation measures appear to be working. RTE said that electricity consumption for the week ending Dec. 11, adjusted for temperatures, was down nearly 10% compared with a year ago.

“That’s the equivalent in terms of savings last week of seven nuclear reactors,” Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said Wednesday. “It makes us much more at ease about getting through the winter.” 

The restarts have made up for some of the delays EDF experienced this fall when nuclear generation fell below 30,000 megawatts. 

Worker strikes at EDF and the difficulty of repairing the corroded pipes pushed back reactor restart dates by weeks or months.

RTE, the company that runs most of France’s electricity grid, was anticipating around 40,000 megawatts of nuclear generation at the beginning of January. With that amount of nuclear capacity, RTE said it might need to issue an urgent alert next month warning the public to cut electricity consumption, when demand peaks for heating. Officials have been urging households and businesses to turn down their thermostats and take other steps to save energy. Schools have turned down the heat, leaving students chilled as a cold wave has swept across the country.  

The conservation measures appear to be working. RTE said that electricity consumption for the week ending Dec. 11, adjusted for temperatures, was down nearly 10% compared with a year ago.

“That’s the equivalent in terms of savings last week of seven nuclear reactors,” Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said Wednesday. “It makes us much more at ease about getting through the winter.”

The origin of the problem is unexpected corrosion discovered on pipes near the core of around 10 French reactors. EDF shut down more than half of the country’s fleet of 56 reactors earlier this year, either to check for corrosion or to accelerate maintenance so that reactors unaffected by the problem would be available in the winter.

With Europe’s natural-gas stocks close to full, corrosion on France’s nuclear reactors has emerged as Western Europe’s most acute energy-supply problem. EDF has said it would spend years coming to grips with it, with a plan to inspect all 56 reactors for this type of corrosion through 2025.

“It will take several years to come totally back to normal,” said Emmanuelle Wargon, the head of France’s energy regulator.

EDF is the world’s largest operator of nuclear-power plants and one of Europe’s most important power companies. In a normal winter, its fleet of nuclear reactors would generate more than 50,000 megawatts of power, around 70% of France’s total electricity production. France’s nuclear fleet would generate so much that it exported thousands of megawatts to neighboring countries, helping stabilize electricity prices across Western Europe.

This year, however, France has relied heavily on electricity imports to meet demand. At times last week, the country was importing as much as 20% of its total electricity supplies. 

Meanwhile:

PV Magazine:

Europe added 41.4 GW of new solar capacity in 2022, according to SolarPower Europe’s (SPE) new EU Market Outlook for Solar Power 2022-2026 report. Annual additions grew by almost 50%, up from 28.1 GW in 2021. It’s another record-breaking year for solar, with the continent adding 10 GW more capacity than predicted by SPE in 2021.

Germany again installed more solar than any other European country, adding 7.9 GW. Spain followed close behind with 7.5 GW of new installations, and Poland closed out the top three with 4.9 GW. Poland’s shift from net-metering to net-billing in April 2022, combined with high electricity prices and a fast-growing utility-scale segment, contributed to its remarkable third-place performance.

The Netherlands (4 GW), France (2.7 GW), Italy (2.6 GW), Portugal (2.5 GW), Denmark (1.5 GW), Greece (1.4 GW), and Sweden (1.1 GW) round out the solar top 10, all above the GW milestone according to SPE estimates. While the top five EU markets remain unchanged from 2021, Portugal and Sweden entered the top 10 at the expense of Hungary and Austria. Portugal joined the GW club for the first time thanks to impressive annual growth of 251%, mainly due to the large increase in utility-scale solar.

Italy, on the other hand, finally returns to the GW group after adding an estimated 2.6 GW, 174% year-on-year growth.

“The small-scale PV segment has bolstered the market, thanks to the country’s favorable Superbonus 110% incentive scheme, and high electricity prices which have improved the attractiveness of self-consumption business models,” the report reads.

The EU’s total solar power capacity grew by 25%, from 167.5 GW in 2021 to 208.9 GW in 2022, according to SPE. The industry body forecasts annual PV growth in Europe will be 53.6 GW in 2023, and 85 GW in 2026, according to its “most likely” scenario. This means the EU solar market is set to more than double within four years, reaching 484 GW by 2026.

New York Times:

The energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to speed up rather than slow down the global transition away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner technologies like wind, solar and electric vehicles, the world’s leading energy agency said Thursday.

While some countries have been burning more fossil fuels such as coal this year in response to natural gas shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, that effect is expected to be short-lived, the International Energy Agency said in its annual World Energy Outlook, a 524-page report that forecasts global energy trends to 2050.

Instead, for the first time, the agency now predicts that worldwide demand for every type of fossil fuel will peak in the near future.

One major reason is that many countries have responded to soaring prices for fossil fuels this year by embracing wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power plants, hydrogen fuels, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps. In the United States, Congress approved more than $370 billion in spending for such technologies under the recent Inflation Reduction Act. Japan is pursuing a new “green transformation” program that will help fund nuclear power, hydrogen and other low-emissions technologies. China, India and South Korea have all ratcheted up national targets for renewable and nuclear power.

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One Response to “Russia’s Gas War, French Nuclear Woes, Scramble European Climate Action”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    The French reactors are all Westinghouse pressurised water reactors, with the first two being direct copies of Beaver Valley units 1 and 2 in Pennsylvania. Those US versions have both been approved for operation to eighty years, whereas the two French ones, at Fessenheim, were shut in 2020, just in time to be no use at all in the power crisis. What’s more, all the similar plants in the US, Belgium, and Sweden have been uprated by between 10 and 23%. If the same upgrades were undertaken on the French park, they would have an extra 6 GW with no further construction. If EdF was run to maximise its output, and market excess production across borders, instead of trying to minimise it to get out of the way of wind and solar, they would be running at the 92% capacity factor that the US, German, Swedish, and South Korean plants habitually manage. That would provide six neighbouring countries with a huge resource of reliable, low-carbon power, bringing down their average emissions as well.


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