How the energy crisis affects the finances of research laboratories and universities in France

A flagship of French research, the Soleil synchrotron, near Saclay (Essonne), will have to stop for several weeks next year because of an excessively high electricity bill, which operates almost seven days, seven, twenty-four hours a day? And, with it, will other large research facilities or laboratories stop their activities?

A few weeks ago, Jean Daillant received an estimate of electrical costs three times higher than the amount for 2022, that is to say almost 17 million euros. “With the amount announced for 2023, it is certain, it will not happen”observes the CEO of Soleil, a tool designed to unlock the innermost secrets of matter, from high-tech materials to prehistoric fossils and works of art.

The energy crisis descends into uncertainty for universities and research organizations, which see the amount of their bills increase this year. According to the first estimates of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, the additional cost linked to the increase in fluid and energy prices will reach at least 80 million euros for universities and 40 million d euros for research organizations. “Significant sums to be found”explained Minister Sylvie Retaileau, during a hearing in the Senate, on July 20.

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The additional costs do not stop there: applied from 1er July, the 3.5% increase in the index point – which is used to calculate the salary of public servants – causes, in 2022, an additional expenditure of 370 million euros for universities and 120 million euros for research organizations. Faced with these excesses, several dozen establishments have already been forced to dive into their working capital, a financial reserve usually reserved for investments such as purchases. large educational structures or renovation of its buildings, the university constitutes one of the most important real estate assets of the State.

Add to this the incompressible costs related to the university salary, which becomes more important as the staff ages and advances in their career. Since 2019, the Ministry of Higher Education has stopped paying the cost of the “turn of the old technique” (GVT), which amounts to 80 million euros, in 2022.

Dip into reserves

At the beginning of this year, bills for many facilities had already jumped more than 40% for a few months. The fault of a supplier, Hydroption, winner of a public contract, which failed in 2021 and forced an emergency change of company, with an upward revision of the initially negotiated prices. The CNRS and several universities were concerned, with consequences for the operation of the laboratories. “Since February, we have increased what we have taken from the research teams’ own resources, to cover the additional cost of about 50,000 euros, on a bill of 225,000 euros in previous years”recalls Alain Couret, director of the Center for the development of materials and structural studies (Cemes) in Toulouse.

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