France’s power sector is under fresh scrutiny as maintenance on several of the country’s critical nuclear reactors continues just as Europe braces for another winter, when regional heating demand typically peaks.
Nuclear reactors generate 65% to 70% of France’s electricity, which is the highest share of nuclear generation globally and has historically enabled France to export surplus clean power to neighbouring nations during periods of high demand.
In 2022, reactor maintenance issues forced France to cut output and reverse those power flows at the worst possible time, with France becoming a rare power importer just as the Russia-Ukraine war cut gas flows to the region and roiled markets.
So far in 2023, France’s main power provider EDF has managed to boost nuclear generation by nearly 14% from the same period in 2022, which has raised France’s total electricity generation by 10% and allowed the country to re-emerge as Europe’s top power exporter, data from LSEG and EnAppSys shows.
But with the peak period for heating demand still ahead, and maintenance continuing at several reactors that are already over 40 years old, it remains unclear whether France can boost power generation by enough to cater to its own higher needs and continue to supply regional markets with surplus clean power.
Any shortfall in France’s total power generation will have Europe-wide repercussions due to the scale of France’s clean power supplies.
Even with the rapid advances in clean power generation throughout most major European economies in recent years, France still accounts for over 25% of total clean power generation in the European Union, data from think tank Ember shows.
That share fell to under 21% in July 2022 as several of France’s reactors curtailed output, but this year climbed to 27.3% in September and 26.5% in October as French nuclear output revived.
Historically, France’s share of EU clean power output tends to climb even higher during November, December and January as regional generation from solar power sites drops off due to reduced daylight hours.
And that share could climb higher still if wind speeds across Europe fall below average during the winter and restrict cumulative output from the region’s wind farms.
The latest forecast for wind generation in Germany, Europe’s largest wind power producer, calls for wind power generation to be 2.1% above the long-term average from November 2023 through to the end of February 2024, data from LSEG shows.
But any extended stretches of below-normal wind speeds during that period would result in reduced wind output, which could place further strain on the region’s power suppliers to boost generation from fossil fuel plants that will lift Europe’s power sector emissions.
Any drop in regional wind power output would also affect regional power flows by raising demand for imports into countries that may see a dip in local wind generation.
In recent months, France’s rising output of nuclear power has facilitated higher power market exports to neighbouring nations, including the United Kingdom and Italy.
France has also lifted exports to Germany, which both imports and exports power over the course of any given day depending on local generation totals and market prices.
German imports of power from France have increased recently after French wholesale power prices declined below Germany’s for the first time since 2021, LSEG data shows.
If France’s nuclear output continues to climb over the remainder of 2023, French power prices may continue to decline relative to those in Germany, where heating demand is already starting to climb for the winter months.
Sustained increases in French nuclear output would in turn also allow for further French power exports, which would help limit the fossil fuel share of Europe’s overall power mix.
But if France’s nuclear output struggles to climb while domestic power demand rises for heating, then French power exports may also slide and force utilities elsewhere to boost generation from fossil fuels, and lift emissions in the process.