France will relax during the months of January and February the limits on the use of its coal-fired power stations in order to ensure the electricity supply, which is very tight this winter due to the shutdown of several nuclear reactors.
The government has therefore put into consultation until January 20 a draft decree allowing the temporary increase in the CO2 emission ceiling of power plants. This ceiling was set by the energy-climate law of 2019, setting out the gradual cessation of production from coal. But the latter has not yet completely disappeared, as we explain to you in this inventory of coal in France.
How many coal-fired power stations are left in France and where are they located?
Only two coal-fired power stations are still operating in France. These are the sites of Cordemais, in Loire-Atlantique, and Saint-Avold, in Moselle. On the map below produced by EDF, these are the power plants shown in dark blue.
The map also shows the power plants in Le Havre, in Seine-Maritime, and Gardanne, in Bouches-du-Rhône. Inaugurated in 1968, the Le Havre power station definitively stopped its coal production on April 1, 2021. It was closed in 2019 after the vote of the energy-climate law of 2019. Its clean-up and complete dismantling will take around ten. years. As for the Gardanne plant, it was shut down in 2018.
When will the last coal-fired power stations be closed for good?
Emmanuel Macron had promised in 2017 to close the last coal-fired power stations in France by “the end of his five-year term”, that is to say in 2022. Last week, the government also assured that the increase in power demanded from the power stations in the coming years weeks would absolutely not call into question the end of production on these sites.
The Émile Huchet power station, in Saint-Avold, will thus stop the production of this fossil energy at the end of March 2022. As for the Cordemais power station, it will be able to continue operating until 2024, despite the presidential promise, in due to the risk of tension on the network, until the EPR nuclear reactor at Flamanville, in the English Channel comes into service.
What does coal represent in the French electricity mix?
Since the end of the 1980s, the share of coal in electricity production in France has collapsed. In 1979, 60.6 terrawatt hours (TWh) were produced using this fossil fuel. In 2020, this production fell to 1.4 TW, a historically low level, according to data from the Electricity Transport Network (RTE). This corresponds to approximately 0.3% of the electricity produced in France that year. A vertiginous drop, linked in particular to the nuclear explosion and the development of renewable energies in recent decades, which can be observed on the graph below:
Always after RTE data, nuclear represents about 67% of electricity production in France according to an average for the year 2020. The share of coal is ridiculously small compared to that of atoms: 0.3% of electricity production in 2020.
But this Tuesday, January 11 at noon, while 12 reactors were shut down, nuclear power represented “only” 63% of electricity production, against 2% for coal.
It should be noted that wind power, which produces on average around 8% of electricity in France, has experienced a sharp decline in recent days due to the absence of wind in certain strategic regions where wind turbines are installed (3% of electricity production this Tuesday noon).
What is the share of coal in the CO2 emissions of the electricity sector?
The government’s decision to compensate for the shutdown of several nuclear reactors with an increase in production from coal has sparked much criticism from the left of the political spectrum as well as from environmental NGOs. For good reason: this fossil fuel emits a lot more CO2 than all the other sources used in France to generate electricity.
According to the Energy Transition Agency (Ademe), a coal-fired power plant emits 1058 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour produced. While the operation of a nuclear power plant emits 6 gCO2e / kWh. We are between 9 and 10 grams for wind power, 10 grams for hydroelectric power or 443 grams for natural gas, as can be seen in the graph below.
And if they produce only 1 to 2% of French electricity, the last two power plants at Cordemais and Saint-Avold alone emit around 35% of greenhouse gases in the electricity sector.
According to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the ramp-up of coal-fired power stations in January and February should lead to the emission of no less than one million tonnes of additional CO2 into the atmosphere. As a reminder, in 2019, France emitted 316 million tonnes of CO2.
Running coal-fired power stations at full capacity to get through the winter
According to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the increase in coal production aims to “reduce the risk to the security of supply of the French” in electricity this winter. For good reason: of the 56 nuclear reactors in France, 12 are currently shut down.
Some are due to maintenance operations, but four of them no longer work because of “defects which were found on pipes due to aging of the reactors”, explained on Tuesday on BFMTV and RMC the Minister of the Ecological Transition, Barbara Pompili.
Precisely, these difficulties “deprive the electrical system of a controllable power of 4.5 GW compared to the capacity expected during the month of January”, according to the operator of the French electricity transmission network, RTE. “The forecast availability of the French nuclear fleet is now assessed by RTE in a range between 43 and 51 GW for most of January: this is the lowest level ever reached for the nuclear fleet at this period of the year ”, specifies the operator of the distribution network.
Hence the need for government support to run the remaining two coal-fired power plants in the Hexagon.
In the coming weeks, Cordemais and Saint-Avold will thus be able to operate for up to 1000 hours in the months of January and February alone, against 600 hours for the rest of 2022. That is well beyond double the annual legal limit (700 hours) set by the energy-climate law of 2019.