How can autonomous electric utilities cope?

How can autonomous electric utilities cope?

Funny birthday present. As it celebrates its 100th anniversary this fall, the municipal electricity board (RME) of Loos-lez-Lille, in the suburbs Lillefinds himself in the turmoil of a energy crisis unprecedented. How can a small electricity distribution and supply company, in the shadow of the giant EDF, get by, stuck between a mission of public service and an exacerbated context of competition?

To understand the problem, we must first consider the status of these electricity boards. Most originated in France after World War I, when power grids began to weave their web across the country. However, in 1946, these companies almost all disappeared with the creation and nationalization of EDF. “Some, which depended like us on the local authority, chose to remain in management”, says Arnaud Evrard, director of RME Loos.

“Our strength is proximity”

In Loos, a town of 23,000 inhabitants, the RME therefore still manages the distribution of electricity, instead of Enedis, the national distributor. But it also takes care of supplying electricity to homes in the same way as EDF or private competitors who have multiplied over the past fifteen years. In France, there are still about 150 autonomous authorities of this type, in the department of Deux-Sèvres or the city of Grenoble, for example. Others remained companies such as Electricité de Strasbourg.

“Our strength is proximity,” emphasizes Arnaud Evrard. A physical reception and an ability to intervene very quickly in the event of a malfunction both on the network and in private homes. Another advantage for the user: there is no need to call on several service providers if you want to install an electricity meter. And for the city, “it is a very significant public service which deals in particular with public lighting”, admits Catherine Grière, assistant to the city of Loos.

On the other hand, the energy crisis that is coming his way worries the head of RME. “The vast majority of our customers still benefit from the regulatory sales tariff in force, under a contract that binds us with EDF, but this crisis still has financial implications for us. »

A planned photovoltaic farm

And for unregulated tariffs, the bill could be very heavy. “For small structures like ours, which employs fifteen people, price volatility can call into question the viability of the company,” adds Arnaud Evrard. There is a change in prices from one day to the next. For 2023, our marketing plan already foresees a multiplication of the price per megawatt by 4 or 5.”

Faced with these challenges, the solution remains to produce electricity yourself. The Loos RME took the lead by initiating studies last year to install a photovoltaic farm within three years. But, in the suburbs of Lille, land remains difficult to obtain and it will only be “additional production at the margin”, admits the director. “We can only base our production on photovoltaics. If we manage to produce 5% of our electricity supply needs with this project, that will already be very good,” he continues.

The centenary therefore comes at a crucial moment for RME. “We are waiting for the positioning of France and Europe to stabilize or lower the price of electricity “, explains Arnaud Evrard. Because, at its small level, management remains very dependent on decisions taken in high places.

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