The Francewill be among the first countries in Europe to phase out coal," Macron promised during his televised address. With the aim of converting the last two French power plants using coal for electricity production to biomass is in Cordemais (Loire-Atlantique) and Saint-Avold (Moselle).
A barely concealed tackle to Germany, which, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, has increased the production capacity of its coal-fired power plants. Berlin must compensate for the drastic drop in its Russian gas imports, and above all compensate for the intermittency of renewable energies (wind and solar) and the closure of its nuclear power plants. To the point of worrying the European Commission about its ability to achieve its objectives in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. The price, but also the carbon-free origin of electricity, remains a subject of confrontation between the two countries.
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The closure of the hexagonal coal-fired power plants was initially planned for 2022, date postponed to 2027. Like Germany, France had to revise its plans because of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The conversion to biomass of the Cordemais power plant - which belongs to EDF - has already been recorded. The "Ecocombust" project was stopped in 2021, due to high costs, before being relaunched in 2022. Soaring electricity prices have made it more competitive. Such a transformation involves structural changes involving a few tens of millions of euros of work. The advantage is to maintain an existing structure rather than building new capabilities. The process is proven. In Reunion Island, two coal-fired power plants will be converted to biomass by the end of the year. They will burn bagasse, a residue of sugar cane.
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Pressures on wood
The origin of biomass is another area of concern. Greenpeace immediately reacted to the words of the President of the Republic to question its origin. "The UK has converted most of its coal-fired power plants to biomass and is now importing wood from Europe and North America," said Roland Berger analyst Erwan Gaudemer. The origin of the biomass - waste from sawmills for example - will also have to be carefully considered to ensure the lowest carbon footprint. "Finally, it is also necessary to provide a factory to dry the wood," adds the expert.
The use of wood to generate electricity may also increase pressure on an already sensitive resource. Prices for firewood and pellets (used in stoves and boilers) are already trending upwards. However, the two coal-fired power plants that will be converted to biomass will have significant needs. "They risk competing with other users, individuals and especially district heating networks which, for some, already use wood-fired boilers," warns Erwan Gaudemer. Especially since using wood to produce heat is about twice as efficient as for electricity. However, these plants should not compete with other biomass users, such as biogas plants (biogas production) or biorefineries (for biofuels) that use inputs other than wood.
0.5% of electricity generation
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Nevertheless, at a time when the focus is on the rise of nuclear electricity production and the development of renewable energies, why keep this production capacity? These plants are required to operate in the event of high voltage on the network, especially during a cold peak. Last year, coal-fired power plants accounted for 0.5% of EDF's electricity production. Maintaining them reduces the France's dependence on electricity imports during periods when prices are particularly high and which mobilize highly polluting power plants. If their use remains the same, a few hundred hours a year, the impact will be less. But if they were to ramp up, the problem of access to the resource could quickly come back to the forefront.