“At the end of last March, we were seen as polluters that it was normal to get rid of. Today, we are needed and our small 600 MW to supplement the supply of the electricity network for the winter, when so many nuclear reactors are shut down. We will be able to supply approximately 700,000 homes. The feeling of usefulness is enormous… but what a waste! »
Like the 83 other employees (minus 10, who remained on site monitoring) as well as all of the 150 subcontractors, Pascal Bernardi was no longer an employee of the Émile-Huchet plant, located in the communes of Saint-Avold and Carling, in Moselle. It had been closed at the end of March to ensure Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to stop all French coal-fired power plants before the end of his five-year term.
When the French government asked to reopen the site, at least for this winter, he returned in mid-August from his redeployment leave. In addition to the possibility of earning quarters of retirement, the bonus was attractive: 4,000 to 5,000 € gross per month and per person.
The operator of the plant, GazelEnergie, had to bring back the key skills, without which the restart was impossible. Many were on reclassification leave until their retirement – the closure had taken place without any redundancy – and a certain number had already found work, in particular in EDF power stations, at Engie or Enedis. Unable to find enough qualified manpower, the operator notably rehired a dozen or so former employees who had been retired for several years.
The October 17 deadline
The plant must produce again on October 17 for the network. More than 300 people are on site, checking the installations, changing the necessary parts, testing their operation… “It’s a 10 million euro operation, carried out in two months when it would take eighteen months in normal times”, describes Camille Jaffrelo, spokesperson for GazelEnergie. And to recall that RTE’s reports in recent years had all concluded that this plant was useless for the security of supplies.
The challenge is particularly logistical. “We had to bring in second-hand parts from the Gardanne plant in Provence, which is currently shut down. In the time allowed, it was impossible to buy only new parts, given the transport times from China. » Replenishing the stock of coal (which generates a dense ballet of trucks) also requires obtaining supplies no longer from Russia but, more expensively, from Colombia, Australia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, the United States (generating a carbon footprint that is also far to be neutral), at a time when many other countries in the world also covet them.
“We are even in competition with the Germans for access to barges from the port of Rotterdam: transport prices could soar”, explains Jean-Pierre Damm, FO union delegate, who does not hide his concern: “If we do all this and we run out of coal, it will be terrible! »
A “premature” closure
Regarding GazelEnergie’s finances, he is not worried: despite the cost of reopening and a new carbon offset fund intended to finance local decarbonization projects, he estimates that the company will still make 150 million euros in profits with this temporary reopening.
If he does not dispute the fact that the page of coal in France must be turned, he believes that the closure was premature, given the forecast shortage. “We should have at least kept the plant in reserve” (technical process allowing not to stop everything and to restart more quickly), but, “With the presidential and legislative elections, the politicians did not want to go back on the closure. And in any case the social plan was validated ”. He regrets that the projections for 2023 are very vague: if the plant were to produce beyond next March, it would be necessary to think now about the recruitment and training of the necessary employees.
The mayor of Saint-Avold, who is also a former employee of the plant, does not dispute the end of fossil fuels, and recognizes that it is more “last embers”. However, he does not hide his satisfaction, “especially for subcontractors and all the jobs involved”, but also to end a proud story with your head held high.
Possible conversion to biomass and hydrogen
Opened in 1951, the Émile-Huchet coal-fired power stationreached its peak in the 1970s with five slices (units of production). It has only operated with one coal unit since 2015. In 2019, the German operator Uniper sold the two gas units to TotalEnergies and the coal unit to Gazel Energie, a subsidiary of EPH (belonging to the Czech Daniel Kretinsky ).
The campaign promise in 2017 by Emmanuel Macron to close the last four coal-fired power plants de France had led to bringing forward the end of life of the coal-fired unit by three years, planned for 2025 anyway. The reorientation of its activity towards biomass and hydrogen in particular are still at the project stage, the territorial project having delayed.