EDF inaugurated a powerful underground hydroelectric structure on Friday after ten years of work. An illustration of the potential of the first of renewable energies. But the religion of competition in force in Brussels could break this momentum.
White foam under leaden sky. In the distance, the snow-capped mountain tears the gray clouds. And the Romanche water flows bubbling from the Oisans massif into the water intake of the small Livet dam. We are at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, where EDF has just completed its new Romanche-Gavet work in Isère: a brand new underground hydroelectric power station nestled in the side of the mountain. Inaugurated this Friday, October 9, it has a power of 97 MW and will produce continuous electricity, 560 Gwh per year, from the end of the year. The equivalent in electricity consumption of the cities of Grenoble and Chambéry. And 1.5% of the current produced by the 500 hydraulic power stations and 650 French dams of EDF.
Its operation is simple: in “hydro”, to produce electricity, everything is in the difference in level and the force of the water. Upstream, at an altitude of 705 meters, the water therefore leaves from Lake Livet to flow 280 meters below to the “cave factory” of Gavet, at an altitude of 424 meters. In the meantime, it left the bed of the Romanche to rush into an underground pipe ten kilometers long dug in the heart of the rock, to a well that plunges vertically to 163 meters deep. On arrival, the fleet arrives under 28 bars of pressure with a flow rate of 40 m3 / second to be milled by two powerful 50 MW “Francis” turbines installed underground. “The turbine is a 4-ton shielded stainless steel paddle wheel, which turns at 500 rpm, coupled with a large dynamo which delivers electricity at 10,300 volts, explains Sébastien Farge, the operations manager of Romanche-Gavet who makes the visit. Behind we have two voltage transformers which send the current at 63,000 volts to the high voltage line of RTE ”. The raging water is evacuated by energy “dissipators”, kinds of large washing machine drums which allow it to be returned to Romanche. “Without effect KärcherDangerous.
EDF CEO Jean-Bernard Lévy responds to journalists during the inauguration of the new Gavet hydroelectric power station on October 9. Photo Pablo Chignard for Liberation
This new type of underground power station replaces five dams and six century-old power stations that were installed along the river on the course of the Romanche. It will produce 40% more electricity. Built at the end of the 19th century by the industrialist Charles-Albert Keller and other pioneers of “white coal”, these old installations will be dismantled now that EDF is done with it. this pharaonic project launched in 2010. The Romanche-Gavet site will indeed have lasted ten years, mobilized more than 300 people and cost more than 400 million euros to EDF, with hazards such as the collapse of a mountain side that occurred in 2013 above the hamlet of Ponants when the tunnel boring machines started to break through. But this Friday, after 600,000 tonnes of rock excavated and a hell of an industrial puzzle to install the machines, it is therefore a day of celebration. Well, not for everyone.
Come to inaugurate Romanche-Gavet, in the company of the Secretary of State for Territorial Cohesion, Joël Giraud, the CEO of EDF, Jean-Bernard Levy, was greeted by demonstrators posted behind banners: “GE Hydro takes the water, GE is killing hydro ”. Not employees of the electrician therefore, but people from General Electric who have come so far from Belfort to protest “Against the liquidation of our generator production activity”, explains one of them. 80 jobs will disappear at GE Hydro in Belfort, as part of the heavy social plan (more than 750 jobs) announced last month in France by the American giant. The relationship with Romanche-Gavet? It is the former energy branch of Alstom bought by GE in 2015 which delivered the two turbines of the plant … “A know-how that will disappear while France is champion of hydropower”, breaths, disgusted, one of the demonstrators.
Notre-Dame, but in concrete
Jean-Bernard Lévy, he has already engulfed with his suite in the tunnel which sinks for a hundred meters to a large nave. Notre-Dame, but in concrete: 70 meters long, 36 meters high by 25 meters wide. The underground hall, in which a 5-storey building could be built, houses the factory, its turbines and transformers. The boss of EDF greets “The accomplishment of a magnificent project” : “This project has been EDF’s biggest in hydroelectricity in recent years, it is the symbol of our desire to develop this energy which remains the first of the renewables”. Before starting the bouzin: a click of the mouse and a growl is heard, the water is pouring out. A low growl follows, the turbine is on. Finally, the “clack” of the circuit breaker announces that Romanche-Gavet has just released its first megawatts: “It’s gone and it’s gone for a long time”, Lévy announces. Because the new structure benefits from a 60-year concession which expires in 2070.
What to see coming for EDF. Quite the opposite of the uncertainty surrounding the renewal of other hydraulic concessions for which the European Commission requires re-competition. The French Total and all the major European energy companies are in ambush to recover dozens of large EDF dams, already amortized and very profitable. But the French government, which protects its electrician, is turning a deaf ear. And Brussels has already sent two formal notices to Paris, in 2014 and 2019. So Jean-Bernard Lévy would like “That this file be unblocked” before launching other large hydroelectric projects. Hydroelectricity is the second source of electricity in France behind nuclear power with 12% of total production. And the PPE (multiannual energy planning law) believes in its potential with 1 GW planned for turbines and 1.5 GW for WWTPs (pumped energy transfer stations) by 2028. EDF has indeed a large “hydro” project at Truyère, a tributary of the Lot: the production equivalent of a nuclear reactor! But no question of investing 2 billion euros without guarantees.
GE Belfort employees demonstrate against the job cuts at the entrance to the new Gavet hydroelectric plant on October 9. Photo Pablo Chignard for Liberation.
Brussels wants to break up EDF
With the drop in wholesale electricity prices which continue to plague EDF’s balance sheet, Lévy would like to sell its hydroelectric juice to “A guaranteed price as is the case for wind and solar power” : “It is carbon-free electricity, it is the first of renewable energies and it contributes to the energy transition”, pleads the boss. Last but not least, the European Commission is putting pressure on Paris to split EDF no longer into two, but into three distinct entities: “Blue” for nuclear, “Green” for distribution activities ( Enedis), sale of energy and renewable electricity, finally “Azur” for hydropower …
This scheme differs of the initial project called “Hercules” concocted by Emmanuel Macron which consisted in nationalizing the nuclear “Blue” and financing its losses by partially privatizing the “Green”. And it risks weakening the electrician if it can no longer pool its costs and transfer cash between its subsidiaries. Despite the recent leak of a note from Bercy evoking this new Brussels oukaze, Jean-Bernard Lévy does not seem worried: “The President of the Republic asked us to reflect on the reorganization of EDF within the framework of a group which will remain integrated, I deduce that we will remain an integrated group”. Faith as CEO of EDF, he will have spilled water in Romanche-Gavet before Brussels took the skin of Electricité de France.
The ribbon was cut during the inauguration of the new Gavet hydroelectric plant on October 9. Photo Pablo Chignard for Liberation.