EDF unions warn of French power blackout risk this winter

PARIS, Nov 15 (Reuters) - France is facing serious risk of electricity blackouts this winter because of nuclear reactor outages, low water levels in hydro plants and premature closures of fossil fuel plants, the union members of utility EDF’s Works Council said on Wednesday.

The Works Council said that since Jan. 25 - when high demand left the French power system with a margin of just one gigawatt (GW) - EDF had closed some 2.4 GW of oil-fired power plants, further reducing back-up capacity.

“There is a higher blackout risk now, both during the coldest months of winter or during heatwaves in summer,” Virginie Neumayer, head of the Works Council’s production committee, told reporters.

The Works Council said it was opposed to the planned closure of France’s last coal-fired plants, which the government has scheduled for 2022, and called for investment in new gas, hydro, biomass and nuclear plants.

Unlike intermittent renewable energies like sun and wind, these plants are “dispatchable”, which means they can be switched on an off when needed.

France has not experienced a major nationwide blackout in living memory, although storms and accidents sometimes cause local or regional power cuts for a few hours.

EDF said on Tuesday it expected no major problems with capacity this winter as only four to five of its 58 nuclear plants would be offline, compared with nine last winter.

Grid operator RTE said this month French power demand this winter was expected to be stable, although unplanned nuclear reactor outages and a prolonged cold spell could lead to a tense supply situation and force RTE to take measures to guarantee security of supply. (Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Mark Potter)