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France could cut electricity to some companies over energy disruptions

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The French government is working on “load-shedding plans” that could see electricity and gas supplies reduced for some companies over the winter, Economy Minister Bruno le Maire confirmed on Sunday, warning that Russia is highly likely to turn off the tap. 

“Let’s prepare for a total cut-off of Russian gas. This is now the most likely option,” Le Maire told attendees at the Rencontres Economiques in Aix-en-Provence.

This means that “you also have to prepare load-shedding plans, we are doing it.”

“It means looking in a very specific way at each company, each employment area; which are the companies that should reduce their energy consumption and which are the ones that cannot,” he told reporters.

Some companies could therefore be asked to “slow down their energy consumption, or even stop their energy consumption for a certain period of time” while it would be “totally impossible” for others to do so without triggering wider industrial repercussions,” he explained. 

Preparing these plans, he then told LCI, is “all the more” necessary given France has “an electricity production this year which is particularly low — eight (nuclear) reactors are shut down today — so it is imperative that we put ourselves now, and I mean now, in battle order.”

‘Sobriety’ and imagination

The contingency plans are being developed by Energy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher with President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne set to “decide in the coming weeks,” Le Maire said.

But, he emphasised, “the effort has to be shared between the administration, private individuals and companies” and “sobriety in our behaviour, sobriety in our energy expenditure” will be key.

For the minister, the “credible” scenario of Russia completely cutting off energy supplies to the European Union is the impetus the bloc needs to accelerate work towards “energy independence”.

France, he said, should focus on replenishing its stocks and “build a floating LNG barge off Le Havre in a short time”, speed up the development of renewable energies and build new nuclear reactors. 

“Let us be imaginative. Let’s look at what we can do about the development of biogas and alternative energies. Let’s remove the regulatory obstacles to all these energies that we need. And here again, let’s not be impressed by the nonsense of all those who want to systematically prevent the development of these energies. Because they are not the ones who will have explained to the French that they can no longer heat themselves or light themselves properly next winter, it’s us,” he said. 

Russian pressure

His comments came a day before Nord Stream 1, the pipeline that delivers over a third of the EU’s imports of Russian gas, shut down for 10 days for maintenance work. 

Many fear that Moscow might say it needs more time to carry out the work in order to exert further pressure on the 27 countries that are grappling with a cost of living crisis fuelled by a sharp rise in energy prices over the previous few months.

Last week, a Russian court ordered the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which carries oil from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea through Russian territory, to suspend operations for 30 days citing violations of environmental requirements. This came shortly after Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan President, assured EU Council President Charles Michel, that his country was ready to send more oil to the EU.

The bloc has imposed six rounds of sanctions against Moscow since it launched its invasion on 24 February with the aim of crippling the Kremlin’s ability to wage war in Ukraine. These include coal and oil embargoes — the latter of which should result in imports from Russia being slashed by about 90% by the end of the year.

EU emergency plan coming

Russian gas, however, has largely been let off the hook although Brussels has pledged to reduce imports by two-thirds by the end of the year.

The main problem for the EU is that unlike Russian oil, which mostly makes its way into the EU on board ships, gas from Russia is primarily delivered by pipeline and the infrastructure to secure alternative supplies — such as LNG terminals — is lacking.

Moscow knows that and is already exerting pressure on 12 member states to which it has partially or completely cut off supplies as the EU frantically tries to fill gas storage to at least 80% of capacity before cold temperatures return in a bid to ensure decent supplies over the winter and to keep prices down.

France is not the only country working on such load-sharing plans. Germany has also admitted to doing so.

Brussels, meanwhile, is working on an Emergency Energy Reduction Plan that is expected to be unveiled on 20 July to address potential supply disruptions over the coming months. Among the measures it has been tasked with looking into by leaders is the feasibility of price caps for oil and gas.

The Commission has already said it stands ready to operate joint purchases of gas using the same model it came up with to secure COVID-19 vaccines for the bloc.

It is also believed to be working on coordinating the various load-sharing plans from member states.

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