EDF is latest utility in energy crisis hurt locker

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A flag with the EDF logo flies next to the EDF power plant in Bouchain
A flag with the company logo of Electricite de France (EDF) and a French flag fly next to the EDF power plant in Bouchain, near Valenciennes, France, September 29, 2021. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

LONDON, Jan 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Jean-Bernard Lévy’s tough winter just got worse. A month after the EDF (EDF.PA) chief executive had to shut down four of his 50-odd nuclear power stations due to technical issues, the French energy company said it was closing another and facing an 8 billion euro hit from a government scheme to protect households from soaring prices. It won’t be the last European utility to get caught in the crossfire of the 2022 energy crisis.

All things being equal, EDF should be insulated against the storm, which has seen wholesale gas prices quadruple in a year and drag up electricity costs. Passing on the increase to French citizens would have meant lifting tariffs by 35%, while the cost of running EDF’s nuclear stations should have remained stable. JPMorgan analysts reckon this would have pumped up EBITDA this year by 8 billion euros.

But French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces an election this year, is determined to protect customers. Capping the increase in retail prices at 4% means taxpayers and investors have to swallow the difference. That hurts EDF in several ways. First, it has to sell 20 terawatt hours of additional power to smaller rivals at 46 euros per megawatt hour. It then has to buy back that power at the much higher market price. EDF thinks the hit to 2022 EBITDA from this, plus a postponement of some tariff increases, could be 8 billion euros. JPMorgan analysts think the overall impact on the company from outages and the tariff support could be even more.

Since the French state owns 80% of EDF, whose shares fell by as much as 25% on Friday morning, the raid hurts taxpayers as well as investors. EDF could try to claw back some of its support via “deferred” tariff hikes in 2023, although Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire implied on Thursday that the state and the company might absorb the entire hit rather than make consumers pay later.

The financial damage to EDF is way bigger than the 1.2 billion pound levy on North Sea oil producers proposed by Britain’s opposition Labour party. Energy consumers in the United Kingdom and Italy, which is also mulling intervention, are facing bigger price increases than in France. The European utility hurt locker has space for many more victims.

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- Shares in French power utility EDF fell by as much as 25% on Jan. 14 after the government ordered it to sell more cheap nuclear electricity to wholesale competitors to limit an increase in household energy bills.

- EDF said the requirement could cost it up to 8.4 billion euros. Jefferies analysts estimated the hit at between 5 billion euros and 10 billion euros.

- The government said on Jan. 13 that EDF would have to sell 120 terawatt hours (TWh) of nuclear power to rivals, up from 100 TWh. The sale price would increase to 46.20 euros per megawatt hour, from the current 42 euros, although that it is still below EDF’s production costs and way below a market price of more than 100 euros.

- French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Jan. 13 the measures would limit domestic price increases for households to 4%. Without them, prices would jump 35%, he said.

- EDF shares were down 21.8% at 8.09 euros by 0940 GMT on Jan. 14.

Editing by Peter Thal Larsen, Karen Kwok and Oliver Taslic

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