French power-plant emissions rebound after gas-to-coal switches

French power lines Source: iStock/James Marty

Greenhouse-gas emissions from France’s power sector increased 10 per cent last year as rising natural-gas prices pushed electricity producers to switch to dirtier coal, the nation’s grid operator said.

Utilities’ emissions rose to 18.8 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, returning to its 2019 pre-pandemic level, Reseau de Transport d’Electricite said in a report released Friday. And they may jump again this year because of nuclear-plant outages.

The rebound in pollution is a reminder of the challenges faced by governments in trying to reduce the use of fossil fuels most responsible for contributing to global warming. Ambitious goals for reaching net-zero emissions are being squeezed by a gas-supply crunch that has been roiling European markets in recent months and pushed prices for electricity and carbon emission permits to records.

The boost in pollution is mitigated by the fact that the electricity sector only accounts for about five per cent of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions because nuclear plants and renewables make up the bulk of its output.

“The carbon intensity of the French electricity mix hence remains one of the lowest in the world,” the grid operator said. It emitted 36 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hours, a sixth of Europe’s average, according to RTE.

Yet emissions by power producers may rebound even more this year after Electricite de France SA warned that its atomic output, which accounted for 69 per cent of the country’s electricity production last year, probably will fall to the lowest in more than three decades because of a heavy maintenance schedule and outages tied to technical issues.

To reduce the risks of potential shortages, the government has lifted the annual cap on running the remaining coal-fired power stations, which generated less than one per cent of the nation’s electricity last year.  

Production from renewable sources fell in 2021 as output from dams and wind dropped, despite more turbines being installed. Solar-power generation rose as the installations of panels grew at the fastest pace on record.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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