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Uniper in exclusive talks to sell French business to Kretinsky's EPH

FILE PHOTO: A logo of German energy utility company Uniper SE is pictured in the company's headquarter in Duesseldorf, Germany, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

By Bate Felix

PARIS (Reuters) - Central European energy group EPH, majority owned by Czech billionaire investor Daniel Kretinsky, has entered exclusive negotiations to acquire all the French assets of German energy group Uniper , both companies said on Monday.

The companies did not disclose the value of the deal.

Uniper said it had received a unilateral binding offer from Energetický a průmyslový holding, a. s. (EPH), and had agreed to exclusive talks on the sale of its activities in France.

Its assets in France include two gas-fired power plants with a total capacity of 828 megawatts (MW), two coal power generation units with an installed capacity of 1,200 MW, a 150 MW biomass power plant and 100 MW of wind and solar resources.

Jan Špringl, vice-chairman of EPH's board, said in a statement that the group has entered a partnership with energy major Total (TOTF.PA) to transfer Uniper's two gas-fired plants to Total once the transaction closes.

A Total spokeswoman confirmed that the company had signed an agreement with EPH to acquire, from Jan. 1, 2020, the two Uniper gas power plants as part of its low-carbon electricity strategy.

Total, which is expanding its foothold in the French electricity market, has said it plans to increase its power generation capacity to 10 gigawatts (GW) by 2023 from around 5 GW now.

Uniper, which also supplies gas and power to French residential and industrial clients, said its French business contributed low single-digit millions of euros to its 2017 income.

The French government plans to phase out coal power generation by 2022 as part of its plan to curb carbon emissions.

Uniper said in August it would have to review its business in France, which employs around 490 people, if the coal shutdown went ahead.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters in September that Uniper had mandated investment bank Rothschild to explore a sale.

EPH and Czech peer Seven Energy have pursued a contrarian strategy of snapping up older, polluting power generation assets while major European utilities are focusing on renewable sources.

"Uniper France faces a special situation where the two coal-fired power plants, which are essential assets of the company both in terms of installed capacity and number of employees, have a limited life time based on the decision of the French government," Špringl said in the statement.

Špringl said the closure of the coal-power plants would require a reorganization and a new strategy, and privately-held EPH was ideally positioned for it.

EPH gave no further details of its plans for the coal-fired power plants.

If concluded, the Uniper deal would be Kretinsky's second major acquisition in France this year after his Czech Media Invest acquired a 49 percent stake in Le Nouveau Monde, the main shareholder of France's daily Le Monde in October.

Finland's Fortum (FORTUM.HE) became Uniper's largest investor in June after buying a 47 percent stake from E.ON (EONGn.DE) for 3.8 billion euros. Fortum had sought a full takeover of Uniper but was rebuffed by Uniper's management.

($1 = 0.8776 euros)

(Reporting by Bate Felix; Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; Editing by Adrian Croft)