The France-Spain Midcat Saga Continues: Opinion
About a year ago, there was quite an uproar from the French delegation when the presenters of the Ramboll study, Gas Interconnections Between the Iberian Peninsula and the Rest of Europe, dared to suggest that an additional gas connection with France could also be a good idea because there was a 1% chance that one or several nuclear plants in France could have an accidental outage. The flow of gas could be reversed from south to north in order to feed the French gas plants and produce electricity needed by the country's homes and industry. "How dare you question the safety of our plants?" Was the gist of their complaint.
In fact, Ramboll was completely wrong because, nine months later, the impossible occurred. Due to, of all things, the falsification of the carbon content tests of some of the elements in the boilers, around 20 nuclear plants had to be shut down for inspection. This was critical because an unacceptable carbon content could lead to cracks that, in extreme circumstances, could become catastrophic. The chances of that happening would still be low but certainly no longer zero.
Several months later we are not any wiser, nor have we any idea of what may lie ahead for these nuclear plants. Silence, or news with expectations of normalcy next month, are clearly insufficient. Although this is not on the scale of Fukushima, the nuclear business will not be irrevocably the same. And nuclear plants do not look so hot now in spite of their zero carbon emissions. The German decision to shut their plants down in a few years appears to be unexpectedly wise.
We have a real problem. Suddenly, the electricity flow between France and Spain had to be reversed. The incident generated an extreme gas demand on both sides of the Pyrenees and its suppliers enjoyed the highest gas prices in the world for a while. Gas customers were left fuming at being summarily abandoned. Power prices followed suit and then things started to get ugly, politically speaking.
The whole thing exploded in the Spanish political arena. The needs of electricity for poor people and the middle class, were mixed in with a multitude of problems, namely: a delivery outage from Algeria, an insufficient number of LNG contracts, the questioning of the electricity auctioning price setting process, the nationalisation of energy companies, and lastly, copious amounts of misinformation and demagoguery.
Everyone had a different solution, but when you think about it, a big pipe connected to the central EU hubs would have avoided the problem. It was, and is, that simple.
The natural route for this connection is through France, of which MidCat, now called STEP, is the obvious shortcut. But this pipe aggravates the French regulator CRE, which inexplicably forgot to unite the north to the south of France with sufficient capacity. They now plan to make Spain pay for the pipeline they forgot to build. Perhaps the Iberian peninsula should explore a sea connection between Barcelona and Sicily, or Bilbao to Rotterdam or Zeebbrugge. It will be faster and the way things are going, possibly even cheaper.
Unfortunately, we will have to wait for yet another study on the subject which is due before summer. This time by the prestigious Poyry Group which will once more, enlighten us on the virtues and evils of the connection.
Even 30 years after having joined the EU, for the 47 million inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, the "Energy Union" continues to be nothing more than a pipe dream.