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‘Don’t take the lift’: French alarm rises over risk of winter power cuts

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As falling temperatures test Europe’s resistance to a winter energy crisis, France has unveiled contingency plans for power cuts — including a stark reminder that in the event of a blackout elevators would be off-limits.

But far from reassuring the public, the government’s messaging — which also warns that some emergency telephone numbers could go down — has fuelled concerns over who could be hit and how to protect the most vulnerable.

“Right now it’s just raising a lot of questions and causing more panic than the opposite,” said Florence Compte, the headmistress of a primary school in the southern Var region, after hearing classrooms in areas hit by short, targeted cuts would have to shut for the morning, as they would be unheated and unlit.

“We didn’t think we’d be the target public,” she said.

France is not alone in envisaging power cuts as a last resort to energy shortages this winter. From Britain to Finland and Estonia, several countries expecting strains have warned that networks might have to be cut for short periods. The German central bank has made arrangements to have more emergency cash available in case cash machines are paralysed by outages. From Switzerland to Italy, telecoms operators have been lobbying to be spared from blackouts.

But few countries have gone as far as France in detailing the possible fallout from programmed power cuts, with most governments choosing to focus on appeals for businesses and households to cut energy usage rather than on contingency plans.

In some other major European economies such as Germany and Italy, talk of power cuts has even eased, thanks to high gas storage levels and falls in industrial demand as the continent pivots away from Russian gas supplies.

As early as July activists were turning off storefront lights in Paris to conserve energy © Lewis Joly/AP

German government warnings over the summer that it might have to introduce gas rationing have faded. In Spain, Beatriz Corredor, chair of Redeia, the parent company for the grid operator, told the Financial Times the country would have no power supply problems, thanks in part to its mix of wind and solar power and six gas processing plants. 

“The situation on the gas side has really resolved itself for this winter,” said Emeric de Vigan, vice-president for power at data company Kpler.

But France, with its heavy reliance on nuclear energy, is more vulnerable because of a record number of outages and maintenance stoppages at its nuclear power plants this year. That problem has spilled over into countries like Britain, which normally leans on French power supplies.

“The problem in France has nothing to do with geopolitics, but with issues with the nuclear plants that leave the country more at the mercy of the weather,” de Vigan said.

Quirks like France’s greater reliance on electric heaters than many other countries also put it at higher risks of strains, according to Jean-Paul Harreman of energy consultancy EnAppSys. 

France’s preparations for a worst-case energy scenario come after the government was accused of lacking foresight in the early days of the Covid pandemic, when face masks were scarce and hospitals were overrun. 

However the public messaging about possible fuel cuts appears to have backfired, forcing President Emmanuel Macron and his ministers to urge people not to panic.

“Stop all this,” Macron said this week. He said the debate over power cuts had become absurd. “We’re a great nation, we have a great energy model, and we will make it through this winter despite the war.”

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne rebuked an executive from EDF-owned power distributor Enedis for saying people reliant on respirators in their homes would not be spared power cuts like hospitals and nursing homes. She said emergency care provisions would be made.

Officials are now at pains to reassure the public that energy-saving power cuts would last no longer than two hours and be dotted across the country in a “leopard skin” pattern. 

People would be warned three days before in televised “red alerts” that strains were building, in an appeal for them to cut their consumption to ease shortages. If that failed, areas hit by cuts would be able to check online the night before if they were affected. 

That would be similar to the types of measures envisaged in Britain, where the grid has warned households could experience blackouts between 4pm and 7pm in January and February if temperatures plummet.

French grid operator RTE has said power cuts could still be avoided, especially as more nuclear reactors come back online.

And some of the contingency planning has shown that very short power cuts may be manageable for some sectors. Klépierre, which owns and operates shopping centres in France, said it had carried out trial blackouts. It would be able to keep fire detectors running and dimmed lights on thanks to generators, allowing malls to open, even if lifts were cordoned off. 

But despite the soothing words, the uncertainty created by even the threat of power cuts has highlighted the potential political cost to the government.

“If France has to cut its electricity from time to time, how can it claim to be the master of Europe?” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist with Sciences Po university. 

Mayors’ associations have warned that rural areas could be disproportionately affected because of the concentration in cities like Paris of priority sites such as hospitals, despite official assurances to the contrary. 

Accusations that politicians and urban elites were removed from the concerns of countryside dwellers helped fuel the anti-government protests of 2018, when Macron had to backtrack on a fuel tax that would have hit drivers. 

Some analysts and businesses said the warnings might be scare tactics to encourage more energy savings, and that the government would be likely to use every lever it had, including leaning on large industrial groups to make bigger efforts, before resorting to widespread power cuts.

“It can’t happen,” said the manager of a small Franprix grocery store in Paris. “If our fridge goes out for two hours, everything will end up in the garbage. They’re just doing this to frighten people.”

Additional reporting by Barney Jopson in Madrid, Martin Arnold in Frankfurt, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Nathalie Thomas in London and Sam Jones in Zurich

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