How does the electricity system work in France?

According to the French Ministry for Industry, 100KWh of heating costs around E12 using electricity, E5 using natural gas, E9 with bottled gas and E6 with oil.

Electricity and gas are supplied by the state-owned Electricité de France/Gaz de France (EDF/GDF, www.edf.fr and www.gdf.fr), although there are local electricity companies in some areas, and commercial users now have a choice of private suppliers (domestic users, as usual, must wait longer).

For information about making the most efficient use of electricity and gas, contact the Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie (ADEME), 27 rue Louis-Vicat, 75015 Paris Cedex 15 (08 00 31 03 11,
www.ademe.fr), which will advise you where to find your nearest Point Info Energie (PIE).

Electricity
Unlike other western countries, France generates some 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, the balance coming mostly from various hydro-electric power stations, and is committed to pursuing a largely nuclear power-generation policy, although plans to build ‘third-generation’ reactors have aroused controversy.

This means that France’s electricity is among the cheapest in Europe (it supplies electricity to its neighbours for less than they can produce it themselves and owns nine other European electricity companies, including Seeboard in the UK).

Due to the moderate cost of electricity and the high degree of insulation in new homes, electric heating is more common in France than in other European countries.

Connection
The first thing to check before moving into a home is whether there are any light fittings. When moving house, most French people remove not only bulbs, but also bulb-holders, ceiling roses and sometimes even the flex, leaving you with bare (and live) wires protruding from the ceiling! This isn’t merely parsimony but because in France lampshades are normally sold complete with bulb-holder, flex and ceiling rose, although these can be bought separately.

One thing to note is that, although bulbs are similar to those sold in the UK, for example, bulb-holders (douille) have a larger diameter and won’t fit British lampshades, so if you plan to bring lampshades from the UK, make sure you bring a good supply of bulb-holders as well. (In any case, these are generally of poor quality in France.) It’s worthwhile also bringing ceiling roses, as these are expensive in France and there’s limited choice.

You must usually apply to your local EDF office for an electricity connection (branchement) and a contract specifying the power supply installed (see below) and the tariff required (see below).

To have your electricity connected, you must prove that you’re the owner by producing an attestation or a lease (bail) if you’re renting. You must also show your passport or residence permit (carte de séjour) if you have one. If you wish to pay your bill by direct debit from a bank or post office account, don’t forget to take along your account details (relevé d’identité bancaire – RIB).

When moving house, most people tell EDF a few days before they leave (EDF requests at least two days’ notice) and the EDF assumes that someone else is taking over the property. To ensure that your electricity supply is connected and that you don’t pay for someone else’s electricity, you should contact your local EDF office and ask them to read the meter (relevé spécial) before taking over a property. If the property has an existing electricity supply, you must pay an ‘access’ fee (frais d’accès) of E14. Non-residents may be required to pay a deposit, which is refundable against future bills.

When buying electrical appliances, the label PROMETELEC (Association pour le Développement et l’Amélioration des Installations Intérieures) indicates that they’re safe. The safety of electrical materials is usually indicated by the French safety standards association’s initials ‘NF’ (Normes Françaises).

EDF & GDF publish a number of leaflets detailing their services and tariffs, including one in French and English, Le Service du Gaz et de l’Électricité. The EDF publishes a useful free booklet (in French), EDF répond à vos questions, available from any EDF office. Your local electricity board may also have a booklet (livret de l’usager de l’électricité) explaining the electricity supply and apparatus.

If you have any questions regarding the electricity supply, contact your local EDF office (listed in the yellow pages and searchable on http://particuliers.edf.fr – enter the name of your commune in the box top right). Information can also be obtained via a local rate telephone line (08 10 12 61 26).

Power supply
The electricity supply in France is delivered to homes at 380/440 volts through three separate phases (not one as in some countries) and is then shared across the three phases at 220/240 volts with a frequency of 50 Hertz (cycles). Some appliances, such as large immersion heaters and cookers, draw power from all three phases. Older buildings may still have 110/120 volt supplies, although these have been converted to 220/240 in most areas.

If you’re moving from a country with a 110V supply (such as the US), your electrical equipment will require a converter or a transformer (transformateur) to convert it to 240V, although some electrical appliances (eg: electric razors and hair dryers) are fitted with a 110/240 volt switch. Check for the switch, which may be inside the casing, and make sure that it’s switched to 240V before connecting it to the power supply.

Converters are suitable only for appliances without circuit boards or microchips that don’t need to be plugged in for long periods (eg: heaters, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and coffee machines). Electronic appliances such as computers, fax machines, TVs and video/DVD players must be connected to the supply via a step-down transformer.

Add the wattage of the devices you intend to connect to a transformer and make sure that its power rating exceeds this sum. Converters and transformers can be bought in most DIY shops, although in most cases it’s simpler to buy new appliances in France.

An additional problem with some electrical equipment is the frequency rating, which in some countries, such as the US, is designed to run at 60 Hertz (Hz) and not France’s 50Hz. Electrical equipment without a motor is generally unaffected by the drop in frequency to 50Hz (except televisions). Equipment with a motor may run with a 20 per cent drop in speed; however, automatic washing machines, cookers, electric clocks and hi-fi equipment are unusable in France if not designed for 50Hz operation.

To find out, look at the label on the back of the equipment. If it says 50/60Hz, it should work. If it says 60Hz, you might try it anyway, but first ensure that the voltage is correct as outlined above. Bear in mind that the transformers and motors of electrical devices designed to run at 60Hz will run hotter at 50Hz, so you should ensure that equipment has sufficient space around it for cooling.

In many rural areas the lights often flicker and occasionally go off and come back on almost immediately (just long enough to crash your computer!). Power cuts of several minutes or hours are fairly frequent in some areas, particularly during thunderstorms, and in some departments (such as Gers) there’s a high risk of lightning strikes.

If you live in an area with an unstable electricity supply, it’s prudent to obtain a power stabiliser for a computer or other vital equipment to prevent it being switched off when the power drops. If you use a computer, it’s also wise to fit an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) with a battery back-up, which allows you time (around five minutes) to save your work and shut down your computer after a power failure.

If you’re worried about lightning strikes, you can install an ‘anti-lightning’ device (parafoudre) in your fuse box. (You should also keep torches, candles and preferably a gas lamp handy!)

If the power keeps tripping off when you attempt to use a number of high-powered appliances simultaneously, it probably means that the rating (puissance) of your power supply is too low. This is a common problem in France. If this is the case, you must ask the EDF to uprate the power supply to your property, although this can increase your standing charge (see below) by up to 40 per cent.

The power setting is usually shown on your meter (compteur). The possible ratings are 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 24, 30 and 36 kilowatts (KW or Kva). To calculate the power supply required, list all the electrical appliances you have (plus any you intend installing, such as an electric shower or dishwasher) and the power consumption of each. Add the power consumption of the appliances you’re likely to operate simultaneously to obtain the total number of kilowatts required.

The three lower rates (3, 6 and 9KW) don’t cater for electric heating, which needs a power supply of 12KW to 18KW. If you have an integrated electrical heating system, however, you can have a gadget called a délesteur installed, which momentarily cuts off convectors, under-floor heating and water-heater, etc. when other high-consumption appliances are in use but without noticeable temperature fluctuations; it may therefore be possible to avoid a higher supply rating.

If you have appliances such as a washing machine, dishwasher, water heater and electric heating in an average-size house of two to three bedrooms, you will probably need an 18KW supply. If you have numerous high-wattage electrical appliances and electric heating, you may need the maximum 36KW supply.

The French use both unearthed two-pin and earthed three-pin plugs and sockets; although two-pin sockets are now illegal, many older homes still have them. Three-pin plugs and sockets should be used for all high-power appliances (such as heaters, irons and drills). Adapter plugs are available in DIY shops, although it’s cheaper (and safer) to replace foreign plugs with the appropriate French plugs.

Your standing charge (abonnement) depends on the rating of your supply and the tariff you choose, which also affects the amount you pay for electricity consumed, as explained below.

Tariffs
The EDF offers three domestic tariff options (tarif bleu), described below.

* Basic Tariff (option base) – With this tariff, there’s no difference between day and night rates and the meter has just one dial. This system isn’t recommended unless you use little or no electricity! The standing charge per year is from around E24 (3KW power supply) to around E835 (36KW power supply); charges can be paid in monthly instalments. The price per KWh is E0.1290 for a 3KW supply and E0.1057 for all other supplies.

* Peak/Off-peak Tariff (option heures pleines/heures creuses) – With this tariff, you can select your own reduced rate period or periods up to a maximum of eight hours daily, eg: from 22.30 to 06.30, or 02.30 to 07.30 and 13.30 to 16.30. The low rate is generally used to heat hot water and charge night storage heaters. You can have relays installed by EDF to switch on your immersion water heater, tumble dryer or dishwasher during the cheap period.

The meter has two dials, one for peak hours marked heures pleines (or HP) with an image of the sun on it, and one for the off-peak hours marked heures creuses (or HC) with an image of the moon on it. Your bill will show your peak and off-peak consumption separately. The standing charge per year is from E105 (6KW power supply) to around E1,330 (36KW power supply). Note that this tariff doesn’t apply to a 3KW supply. The price per KWh is E0.0644 during the heures creuses and E0.1057 at heures pleines.

You can have a special light and/or buzzer installed by an electrician giving you a 30-minute warning of the start of the higher rate. You can also have your heavy consumption appliances connected to a remote control switch (télécommande) so that they switch off automatically during the high rate period and switch on again when the period ends.

* ‘Tempo’ Tariff (option Tempo) – With this tariff, which is available only for supplies of 9KW or more, the year is divided into ‘blue’, ‘white’ and ‘red’ days (jours bleus/blancs/rouges), each with different charges for peak and off-peak use (see Peak/Off-peak Tariff above). There are 300 blue days, including all Sundays and most Saturdays; 43 white days, spread through the year; and 22 red days, on selected weekdays between 1 November and 31 March (guaranteed to be the coldest days of the year!).

The standing charge ranges from E162 (9KW) to E550 (36KW) and the peak/off-peak rates for each colour day are as follows: blue E0.0446/0.0553; white E0.0907/0.1075; red E0.1682/E0.4702. You can have a complicated management system installed, at a cost of between E300 and E800, to ensure that you minimise use on red days – or you can switch everything off and go skiing or simply freeze!

Note that, since January 2003, a tax called the contribution au service public has been applied to all electricity bills at the rate of E0.33 per KWh.

Meters
Meters are usually installed in a box on an outside wall of a property. However, if your meter isn’t accessible or a house isn’t permanently occupied, make sure you leave the keys with a neighbour or make special arrangements to have your meter read. (You can have your meter connected to an exterior box for around E75). If your meter cannot be read, you will receive an estimate based on your previous bills, although it must be read at least once a year.

Billing
You’re normally billed for your electricity every two months but may receive monthly bills if your consumption is above a certain level. A number of bills (facture) received throughout the year, eg: alternate bills, are estimated. Bills include a standing charge (abonnement), VAT (TVA) and local taxes (taxes locales). VAT is levied at 5.5 per cent on the standing charge and 19.6 per cent on the total power consumption. Local taxes (taxe commune/département) are around 12 per cent and where applicable are levied on around 80 per cent of the consumption and standing charge total before VAT is added. VAT at 19.6 per cent is also levied on the local taxes.

Bills can be paid by direct debit (prélèvement automatique). It’s also possible to pay a fixed amount each month by standing order based on your estimated usage; at the end of the year you receive a bill for the amount owing or a rebate of the amount overpaid. These methods of payment are preferable, particularly if you spend a lot of time away from home or you’re non-resident. If you’re non-resident, you can have your bills sent to an address outside France. If you don’t pay a bill on time, interest (majoration) can be charged at 1.5 times the current interest rate. If your bills still aren’t paid after a certain period, your electricity company can cut your service.

Taken from Living and Working in France, by David Hampshire, Survival Books.

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