'Don't take the elevator': French alarm raises over risk of winter power cuts

‘Don’t take the elevator’: French alarm raises over risk of winter power cuts

As falling temperatures test Europe’s resilience to a winter energy crisis, France has unveiled contingency plans for power cuts – including a stark reminder that in the event of a power outage, elevators would be prohibited.

But far from reassuring the public, the government’s messages – which also warn that some emergency phone numbers could go down – have fueled concerns about who could be affected and how to protect the most vulnerable.

“At the moment, it only raises a lot of questions and causes more panic than the opposite,” said Florence Compte, the director of a primary school in the south of Var, after hearing classrooms in areas affected by short, targeted blackouts would have to close for the morning, as they would be unheated and unlit.

“We didn’t think we would be the target audience,” she said.

France is not alone in considering power cuts as a last resort in the face of energy shortages this winter. From Britain to Finland and Estonia, several countries expecting tensions have warned that networks may have to be cut for short periods. The German central bank has made arrangements to have more emergency cash on hand in case ATMs are crippled by outages. From Switzerland to Italy, telecom operators have been pushing to be spared blackouts.

But few countries have gone as far as France in detailing the possible fallout from scheduled power cuts, with most governments choosing to focus on calls for businesses and households to reduce their energy consumption rather than contingency plans.

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

Activist turns off shop window lights in Paris
As early as July, activists were turning off storefront lights in Paris to save energy © Lewis Joly/AP

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

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

But France, which relies heavily on nuclear power, is more vulnerable due to a record number of shutdowns and maintenance outages at its nuclear power plants this year. This problem has spread to countries like Britain, which normally relies on the French power supply.

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

Quirks like France’s greater reliance on electric heaters than many other countries also put it at higher risk 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 in short supply and hospitals were overwhelmed.

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

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

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has chastised an executive at EDF-owned electricity distributor Enedis for saying people dependent on ventilators at home would not be spared power cuts like hospitals and nursing homes. She said emergency care arrangements would be made.

Officials are now scrambling to reassure the public that power-saving blackouts would last no longer than two hours and would be dotted across the country in a ‘leopard skin’ pattern. .

People would be warned three days before by televised ‘red alerts’ that the strains were growing, in a call for them to cut back on consumption to ease shortages. If that failed, areas affected by the cuts could check online the night before to see if they were affected.

It would be similar to the kinds of measures being considered in Britain, where the network has warned households could experience blackouts between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in January and February if temperatures drop.

French grid operator RTE 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 outages can be manageable for certain sectors. Klépierre, which owns and operates shopping centers in France, said it carried out fault tests. It would be able to keep fire detectors going and lights dim with generators, allowing malls to open, even if elevators were locked.

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 mistress of Europe?” said Bruno Cautrès, political scientist at Sciences Po.

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

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

Some analysts and companies said the warnings could be scare tactics to encourage more energy savings, and that the government would likely use all the levers at its disposal, including leaning on big industry groups to make greater 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 trash. They do this just to scare 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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