The electricity supply industry in France

The electricity supply in France is organised in a relatively traditional way. It is dominated by the state - owned company Electricité de France (EdF) which holds 95% of the generating power, all the transmission facilities and about 97% of the supply to the final consumer. Basic generation is organised around 55 nuclear generating plants, with hydraulic and gas plants of various sizes making up the difference. An important aspect is that co-generation is on the increase, despite a delay with respect to many European countries. It is expected to reach an installed capacity of 2000 MW by the year 2000.

EdF and the non-nationalised electricity distributors supply about 29 million consumers. Some 300 000 are classified as commercial or industrial; of these 600 large industries are directly supplied from the high voltage network.

Pressure from EdF has ensured that France has more solid state metering equipment for customer billing than any other country in Europe. The high voltage customers all have automatic meter reading (AMR) systems, using the public switched telephone network (PSTN) as the communications medium. Of the 300 000 industrial and commercial customers 110 000 are equipped with solid state meters, and about 50 000 are presently read via the PSTN.

The move towards solid state metering is also occurring rapidly in the case of residential customers. More than one million already have a solid state meter in their house, and EdF plans to buy almost one million more meters in 1998. Of these only 50 000 will use the traditional electro-mechanical technology, being single phase single rate meters for small residential customers.

ADDING ADDITIONAL FEATURES

Using solid state technology for residential electricity metering makes it possible to incorporate additional functions for managing the metering systems. EdF has chosen two techniques. Ripple control – the transmission of commands from a central point down the network to the meter at the consumer’s premises – allows the utility to implement multi-rate tariff policies for residential customers. To day about half the residential customers are billed through a multi-rate tariff contract.

The second technique consists of a local bus, making it possible to read the meter from outside the house. The meter is connected to a two-wire bus, conforming to the international standard IEC61142. One extremity of the bus is connected to a magnetic coupler stuck on the wall of the house; the meter reader can simply connect his handheld unit to the magnetic coupler to read the meter. Up to one hundred meters can be connected to the same bus, making multiple reads possible. Other obvious advantages are the ability to read inaccessible meters and to avoid reading mistakes, which cause disputes between the utility and the consumer.

The issue of prepayment in France can be considered still to be at the experimental stage. Only 40 000 prepayment units have been installed so far, but in some areas the concept is gaining increased acceptance on the part of both customers and EdF.

COMPLEX TARIFFS

France has the most complex system in the world as far as the electricity tariff policy is concerned. This is due to the fact that the French authorities have always charged consumers the actual cost of the electricity at the time it is used. In addition the customer is supposed to pay for the investment needed to supply him with electrical power. Bills for all customers thus always include two items – one the charge for the contracted demand, and one for the actual kilowatt-hour use.

The contractual demand is part of the customer’s contract. When residential customers exceed the demand, their circuit breaker will trip. In the case of larger consumers , there are various penalties available.

The tariff policy looks at customers in three groups – residential customers, small commercial and industrial customers and large industrial customers .

The residential customers are subject to the so-called " blue tariff". They have several options available to them – single-rate, two-rate (usually day and night) and seasonal rate, called "Tempo". In the case of Tempo, the year is divided into 300 cheap " blue days " , 43 average " white days " and 22 expensive " red days". Each day is then divided into two periods (day and night).

An interesting feature of this option is that the blue, white and red days occur randomly. A signal is sent to the customer by means of the ripple control system the day before the change is due to take place. The Tempo tariff may prove to be economical for relatively large residential customers who watch their consumption carefully, but it requires quite a complex installation , which is why it has not so far been successful.

The " yellow tariff" applies to the small size commercial and industrial customers whose contracted demand lies between 36 and 250 kVA. There are four tariff periods with two seasons – winter (November to March) and summer. In addition each 24 hour period is divided into night (8 hours) and day. When a customer exceeds the contractual demand, he is penalised in proportion to the time he exceeded this value. The yellow tariff population represents about 200 000 customers and is presently increasing by 5 000 a year.

The "green tariff" deals with large industrial customers whose contractual demand is above 250 kVA and who are usually supplied from the medium and high voltage networks. There are several options available, the simplest and most common being a division of the year into two seasons (winter and summer). The winter days are then divided into three periods (peak, day and night) while the summer days have two periods (day and night). Sundays are always charged at the lower rate. A more complex option works on the same principle, except that an intermediate period between summer and winter is added to make three seasons.

Even more complex options exist for larger customers with random aspects concerning specific weeks or specific days. For these AMR and telephone communications are mandatory tools.

THE IMPACT OF DEREGULATION

Electricity supply deregulation is now reaching France. From February 1999 the largest consumers – those using more than 40 GWh per year – will be able to choose their electric energy supplier. Consumers using more than 20 GWh per year will be able to avail themselves of this facility in 2002, and in 2005 those with more than 9 GWh consumption each year will be included.

At the moment, however, the method of effective implementation is far from clear. The one thing we do know is that a high voltage network administrator will be elected to ensure that generation and consumer needs fit together. One of the consequences is that EdF is presently equipping all its generating plants with metering sets using AMR techniques for daily reading of the generating plant supply patterns. There is no need to install new metering equipment for customers at this stage, because they are quite well equipped.

For the time being EdF’s supply monopoly will continue to exist; even independent electricity suppliers will be required to access their supplies from EdF. While co-generation installations are developing quite well in France, production is still at a low level. It is, however, expected to increase significantly in the next few years, and EdF is involved in the process through specific partnership arrangements.

The future of France regarding generation and supply of electricity is dependent on the policy adopted by future French governments, as well as external pressures such as those from the environmentalists. For the time being – thanks to the present nuclear plants – there is excess generating capacity, allowing EdF to sell electric energy to neighbouring countries very competitively.

But the lead time for building a nuclear plant means that decisions have to be taken well in advance. This does not fit well with the short sighted monitoring for immediate return induced by the present deregulation process. It is therefore impossible to predict the situation of the electricity supply industry in France in ten or twenty years time.