Zut alors! Heat forces French power firms to buy British

A heatwave across the channel is forcing France to buy electricity from the UK to cover soaring demand.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As temperatures in France hit 30C and above, the Gallic equivalent of our own National Grid has been hit by une whammée double of rising demand and falling supply, forcing them to import power from Britain to make up the shortfall. 

The power is being delivered via the 28 mile (or 45km, depending on which end you are standing at) cross-channel link cable which runs from Kent to northern France. Since its installation in 1986, the link has more usually been used to conduct electricity in the other direction, to prop up the UK’s own creaking power network.

So what’s going on? Well, demand there is up because - unlike the stoical and uncomplaining (ha ha) Rosbifs who have also been sweltering this week - when the temperature rises, French householders simply shrug expressively and turn up the air conditioning.

Supply is down, believe it or not, because of warm rivers. That one is straight out of the Network Rail book of lame excuses, surely?

Well, maybe not - 80% of France’s indigenous power supply is generated by its 19 nuclear power stations, fourteen of which are located inland and rely on river water to cool their reactors. The casings of said reactors must not exceed 50C for safety reasons, and the temperature of the spent cooling water which a station discharges back into the river is not allowed to exceed 24C, lest it harm aquatic wildlife. 

The more power a reactor produces, the more it heats up the cooling water. So as the weather warms up and the difference between the intake and discharge water temperatures gets less, generating capacity is reduced proportionately. Just at the point when load on the grid is peaking. Un grand poseur, and no mistake.  

Getting on for a third of France’s total 63GW nuclear generating capacity is estimated to be out of action at present, not helped by a ten-week strike by French power workers (plus ca change). French electricity giant EDF - which runs the reactor fleet - is warning that it may need to import up to 8,000 MW before the end of July to cover the shortfall. Perhaps those French engineers should have taken a leaf out of the British nuclear industry’s book and built a few more of their reactors on the coast.

On the face of it this is good news for British energy traders, who don’t often get the chance to sell juice to France, because of its generally low wholesale electricity prices. But the boost to the wider British corporate coffers will not be as great as it might be. A sizeable chunk of our own generating capacity (including all our operational nuclear plants) is now owned by the UK subsidiary of that self-same EDF, so arguably the firm stands to benefit most of all from the crisis in its own native power system. C’est vraiment un monde peculière, n’est pas? 

In today's bulletin:

Darling wades into bonus row - as trader loses £6m
Zut alors! Heat forces French power firms to buy British
Facebook woos Twitterati with new privacy settings
CFOs take centre stage
MT celebrates '35 Women Under 35' 2009

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