Rising gas and oil prices have plunged Europe into its worst energy crisis in decades. France has been hit hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you would expect. Nuclear and hydroelectric power, the country's main sources of electricity, are both running out of steam. Has the French energy mix hit a breaking point? We take a closer look in this edition of Down to Earth.
Coal makes a comeback
On March 30, 2022, at 10:30am, a page was turned for the Emile Huchet coal-fired power plant in eastern France. The station closed its doors and stopped generating electricity. But now, more than 300,000 tonnes are once again piling up. Workers have been called back in, as the plant prepares to resume production.
The energy crisis weighing on Europe and France this winter means the 600 megawatts produced by the Saint-Avold plant have become indispensable. "It's a necessary evil," says Thomas About, a manager at the plant. "We still need this coal in France today."
Like everywhere else in Europe, gas supplies are limited. But France's energy autonomy is also being undermined by two factors in particular. Out of a fleet of 56 nuclear reactors, nearly half have been shut down – a source of energy that normally accounts for 70 percent of the country's electricity. Meanwhile, hydroelectric dams, France's second source of energy, have been operating at 62 percent of their capacity, following a summer of intense heat and drought.
A pioneering power plant to address the hydroelectricity crisis
One hydroelectric power plant in the French Alps has devised an innovative solution to this problem: floating solar panels on the surface of the water to limit evaporation.
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