While the French nuclear industry is under pressure, what does it mean for the future of UK electricity supply?

The recent struggles in the French power market have had a huge impact on both UK power supply and power prices this winter. With a multitude of nuclear power reactors down for urgent maintenance and damage to the IFA interconnector, both France and the UK are experiencing a tight power system, where the gap between supply and demand is growing smaller as we continue into darker and colder winter months. With this in mind, what can we expect for the future of energy supply to the UK?

In September, French power became very tight as more than a dozen French reactors closed over safety checks and routine maintenance. France relies on nuclear power to make up 80% of their power supply, so having a significant amount of plants shut down from supply had shortened power supply and increased power prices. When the announcements were made regarding the shut-down of nuclear plants, day-ahead UK and French power prices spiked anyway, but to add fuel, during a recent storm cables along the IFA interconnector were damaged, reducing its capacity by half. The IFA (Interconnexion France-Angleterre) interconnector has a capacity of 2GW, and generally France exports power to the UK on a daily basis. At the moment the UK exporting power to France at 1GW each day, for the first time in four years. While the reduction in capacity has helped somewhat to secure electricity supply for the UK, it does not bode well for those occasions when the UK will require help from France, especially as weather forecasts predict a very cold winter.

All in all, the issues in France and along the Interconnector, and the sharp increases in power prices highlights just how much the UK relies on other countries for power supply to meet demand. As it stands, the UK has 4 interconnectors at its feet – the IFA, BritNed, the Moyle, and the East West interconnector, with a capacity of 2GW, 1GW, 0.5GW and 0.5GW respectively. In the end, this brings up the question of whether the UK can cope without external supply, and whether the future supply of electricity is stable or at risk.

So far there have been no outages, however National Grid introduced a scheme to ‘keep the lights on’ by placing two previously closed coal power stations on standby to meet UK demand this winter. Without the use of coal, the UK’s power supply would have been very strained with the potential for outages.

The margin between power supplies and demand were expected to be close to record lows this winter even before the partial loss of French capacity as old coal-fired power stations are gradually replaced with cleaner but less reliable renewable power.

There have been discussions regarding introducing additional interconnectors between alternative countries such as a propped interconnector from Norway, which would be the longest interconnector in the world. Plus the possibility of a longer interconnector between the UK and Iceland, which would transport electricity from Iceland’s abundance of renewable hydro and geothermal energy sources. However many reports have suggested that the UK’s decision to leave the EU has impacted the implementation of an interconnector form Iceland.

Under the new Electricity Market Reform, bidding for Contracts for Difference schemes in renewable energy across the UK will commence, with the aim to strengthen the UK’s power supply to meet increasing demand in the 2020’s. In the meantime, we have returned to old coal power to help alleviate some pressure from the system during peak winter periods, despite coal power stations being actively phased out. Many have suggested that this is not a long term option, and in response to this, we have heard that the French nuclear industry is in its worst state now than it has been in years. There are hopes that these recent struggles will not be repeated, though the future of electricity supply in the UK remains at risk, with the only hope for strong renewable energy sources to be implemented over the next few years.




Sources: the Guardian, the Financial Times, Gov.co.uk, Energy Live News, Npower (RWE), Engie, EDF, SSE, Gazprom Energ