France turning to coal, Germany revving up plants

From Power Magazine

[Note: This article will appear in the forthcoming December 2016 print issue of POWER.]

The discovery of widespread carbon segregation problems in critical nuclear plant components has crippled the French power industry—20 of the country’s 58 reactors are currently offline and under heavy scrutiny. France’s nuclear safety chairman said more anomalies “will likely be found,” as the extent of the contagion is still being uncovered.

With over half of France’s 58 reactors possibly affected by “carbon segregation,” the nation’s nuclear watchdog, the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) has ordered that preventative measures be taken immediately to ensure public safety. As this story goes into production in late October, ASN has confirmed that 20 reactors are currently offline and potentially more will shut down in coming weeks.

The massive outages are draining power from all over Europe. Worse, new questions continue to swirl about both the safety and integrity of Électricité de France SA’s (EDF’s) nuclear fleet, as well as the quality of some French- and Japanese-made components that EDF is using in various high-profile nuclear projects around the world.

Backbone of the French Grid

EDF’s nuclear power plants (NPPs) provide up to 75% of France’s power needs. Its NPPs are spread out over 19 sites and include 34 900-MW units, 20 1,300-MW units, and four 1,450-MW units. As the fleet suffered through shutdowns, inspections, and reviews, production fell in September to its lowest level since 1998—just 26.6 TWh, according to French grid operator Reseau de transport d’electricite.

With more NPPs scheduled to go offline, that figure may continue falling. Earlier in October, EDF reduced its 2016 generation targets from 395–400 TWh to 380–390 TWh, while estimates for nuclear output in 2017 have also been lowered to between 390 TWh and 400 TWh. For perspective, annual nuclear production averaged 417 TWh in the period 2005–2015. Although in 2009 output fell to 390 TWh, for the last decade production has consistently been above 400 TWh and exceeded the target range of 410–415 TWh in both 2014 and 2015.

Following EDF’s reduced nuclear generation forecast, wholesale power prices immediately began jumping with Q4 2016, Q1 2017, and calendar 2017 baseload contracts trading up by €1.70/MWh, €1.65/MWh, and €1.20/MWh, respectively. To address the energy shortfall, France is turning to coal and other fossil fuels, as well as imported power. Despite the COP21 carbon emissions agreement, which recently went into force, France is now burning coal at its highest levels in 32 years.

Despite the COP21 carbon emissions agreement, which recently went into force, France is now burning coal at its highest levels in 32 years

With so many plants now offline, Reuters reported that French wholesale 2017 power prices hit a contract high of €45.60/MWh on October 27, with more gains possible in the coming weeks and months. Additionally, prices in Germany, Europe’s largest power supplier, are also rising. As that nation diversified its power sources and bulked up its renewable capacity, much of its conventional fleet has become underutilized or marginalized. Many of those German plants are now revving up as they send power into France, thanks to a high level of interconnectivity. Not coincidentally, Reuters reported that German year-ahead power prices hit a two-year high of €33.65/MWh in late October as well.

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