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The French experiment – and the shift from nuclear to renewables

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Energy Transition

France’s new President Emmanuel Macron has appointed his cabinet – to great acclaim. The direction of the country’s energy transition remains unclear, however. Craig Morris investigates (and secretly hopes for a Sixth Republic).

The new president may shift towards more renewables in the French energy mix (Photo by Pablo Tupin-Noriega, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The new president may shift towards more renewables in the French energy mix (Photo by Pablo Tupin-Noriega, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Macron, the outsider, has put together a group of ministers that reflect his wish to be inclusive. There is something for everyone: new faces and old, left and right, politically established and newcomers.

One main concern after his election was whether he would be able to bring together support from the political apparatus as an outsider. His cabinet is an obvious attempt to form an umbrella government across party lines. Judging from the initial media reactions, his choices have at least met with admiration.

The appointment that has drawn the most attention seems to be the new Minister of Ecology and Solidarity – the new name for the old Ministry of Energy and the Environment headed by Ségolène Royal. The new focus indicates that social issues will be a priority when decisions about the energy transition are made.

The man who will direct the new ministry is Nicolas Hulot, who made a name for himself decades ago with a TV series on the environment entitled (my translation) Ushuaïa – the Magazine of the Extreme. Here he is 19 years ago warning us not to fetishize pretty fish over ugly ones, but instead to respect the diversity of the oceans.

Hulot could thus perhaps best be presented to the global audience as the French equivalent of David Suzuki, the famous Canadian who used television to educate the public about nature and then went on to launch an eponymous foundation (here is Hulot’s; the website is only in French). He thus comes with impeccable credentials, and indeed previous politicians have courted him as well – but to no avail. But something about Macron must have convinced him that his time had come in politics.

It will be interesting to see what “solidarity” means in the energy transition. For instance, concerning the closing of Fessenheim, France’s oldest nuclear plant, Hulot is quoted: “We cannot impose a transition by force. The transition has to be done in an acceptable manner.” This approach is similar to the way Germany is handling its coal phaseout: slowly in order not to detrimentally impact coal communities.

Former President Hollande aimed to have France reliance on nuclear drop from 75 percent of power supply to 50 percent by 2025; that goal is still law. Macron is generally considered to be pro-nuclear, Hulot less so, but Macron has also commented skeptically on the cost of nuclear: “Nobody knows the total cost for nuclear energy. I was minister for industry and I could not tell you.”

It thus seems likely that an approach will be taken to pursue an energy transition towards renewables and away from nuclear, but possibly not at the speed that Hollande’s law specified. The slowdown would then be justified with solidarity. If so, this approach seems logical. As I have been saying for years, France has put most of its eggs in the nuclear basket and can hardly afford to shut very many reactors.

It’s not just communities with reactors that will be affected by a nuclear phaseout. Rather, last November EDF – the utility than runs all French reactors – bought up the effectively bankrupt Areva, the firm that built them. Both companies are largely state-owned. In January, the EU approved France’s plans to inject a whopping 4.5 billion euros in Areva to keep it afloat.

Whatever compromises he is forced to make, Hulot will easily bring more expertise to the table than the French have become accustomed to. Royal made a showcase out of the awful idea of 1,000 kilometers of solar roads (really terrible). And let’s remember, one last time as she leaves office, her challenge to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 to state how much nuclear power France has. They both got the answer wrong (Sarkozy was closer).

If nothing else, we can expect more expertise from Hulot. And if Macron’s recent video to American climate scientists is any indication (in great English with a charming French accent) we should brace ourselves. We’ll be facing five years of irresistible French leaders trying to find a middle ground in the rubble of their half-century-old Fifth Republic, whose party-based structures Macron’s success has called into question.

The Fifth Republic was founded at the end of colonialism in 1958 and based on the idea that a strong leader was needed. But France is now embedded in the EU, and strong parties are needed to for democratic debate to flourish – especially if Macron wants to make good on his word that French history in Algeria needs to be dealt with.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

Source: Energy c. Reproduced with permission.  

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  • Objectif Terre

    Nicolas Hulot was a strong nuclear proponent. But just before the 2012 elections in France and just after Fukushima, he said: « Je faisais jusque-là partie de ceux qui accordaient une certaine confiance aux arguments des ingénieurs pro-nucléaires » (« I was, up to then, one of those who gave some confidence to the arguments of pro-nuclear engineers »)
    https://www.marianne.net/societe/nicolas-hulot-est-il-credible

    He his refering in particular to Jean-Marc Jancovici (https://jancovici.com/en/energy-transition/societal-choices/what-transition-are-the-germans-up-to-exactly/), an engineer deeply pro-nuclear who said that wind energy is a « projet sentimental inadapté » (Unsuitable sentimental project).

    Nicolas Hulot wanted to be the candidate of environmentalists in the presidential but he failed: electionhttp://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/07/12/primaire-ecologiste-eva-joly-l-emporte-par-58-des-voix_1548022_823448.html

    EDF (a French electric utility company, largely owned by the French state) is one of the partners of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation:
    http://www.fondation-nicolas-hulot.org/fondation/ils-nous-soutiennent/nos-entreprises-partenaires/edf

    Here the EDF “secret plan” for France:
    http://bfmbusiness.bfmtv.com/entreprise/nucleaire-le-plan-secret-d-edf-pour-2050-1167515.html
    “The group is working on extending the operation of the 58 French nuclear reactors for 10 or 20 years. Arrested between 2030 and 2050, they will be replaced by about twenty new EPRs. The share of nuclear energy in electricity production will be reduced to 50% only in 2050.”

    France isn’t an Energy Democracy but a nucleocracy.

    • Simon

      In that case, these thoughts come to mind: Maginot Line, Blitzkrieg. The more things change, the more they stay the same. History does repeat – just not in the most obvious ways…

    • I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a strong supporter of nuclear. He had, as he said, a “certaine confiance” – meaning he trusted them to a point, but all that was shattered by the events at Fukushima, and the ridiculous costs of the new generation of nuclear, EdF may well have a plan to extend life of nuclear, but have they thought about how they are going to pay the maintenance bill – already $100 billion for the existing fleet. They are more less broke already.

      • Objectif Terre

        You’re right Giles: NH changed his mind after Fukushima. But him and influencial members from the scientific comitee of his foundation were strong proponents of nuclear energy and had a detrimental effect and influence on the energy debate in France, the nuclear kingdom.

        Nicolas Hulot, december 2003: “Choisir de renoncer aux EPR, c’est risquer de substituer, aux risques inhérents au nucléaire, une augmentation d’émission de gaz à effet de serre.”

        The state-owned French TV was very cooperative with those pro-nuclear influencers. 18 mars 2011: “(…) presented by David Pujadas as a neutral expert: “neither a pro, nor an anti-nuclear (…)”
        https://reporterre.net/France-2-presente-Jean-Marc

      • Objectif Terre

        You’re right Giles: NH changed his mind after Fukushima.
        NH, 2003: “Choisir de renoncer aux EPR, c’est risquer de substituer, aux risques inhérents au nucléaire, une augmentation d’émission de gaz à effet de serre. ”
        (Not building new nuclear reactors = more greenhouse gases, he said)

        • So, we can assume he travelled along the same route as many of us, including me: thinking that may be nuclear is the answer until concluding that a) they are ridiculously expensive b) struggle to fit in to a modern decentralised system c) are catastrophically dangerous when things go wrong and d) cannot compete with plunging cost of new technologies.

          • Objectif Terre

            They made us waste a lot of time in France. But I agree, it’s good to be able to change his own mind. Now to close nuclear reactors in France (a third of the nuclear fleet before 2025), we need someone deeply convinced that’s not a good idea to continue with them.

          • solarguy

            Yeah and I can’t understand why others fail to understand those facts.

          • Alastair Leith

            #nutshell

          • Alastair Leith

            e) a raft of issues for indigenous people and the environment in Australia where they get fuel for French reactors, plus the waste issue which Australia is complicate in.

          • Objectif Terre

            So, we can assume this:
            « prix Pinocchio du développement durable »
            https://reporterre.net/Hulot-encadre-par-une-cadre-de-Veolia-et-un-politicien-neo-liberal

          • Objectif Terre
      • Objectif Terre

        Le Monde: “(…) In the ecologist family, some have not deprived themselves – it is a euphemism – of seeing in this reversal a mark of electoral opportunism. In response, Pascal Durand, one of the pillars of Nicolas Hulot’s current team, explains his change: “Nicolas was clear. He said the Fukushima accident had totally changed his vision, That nuclear power was not acceptable. ”
        http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/04/28/comment-nicolas-hulot-a-change-de-position-sur-le-nucleaire_1513189_823448.html#ITAJBO3lXMPSZloF.99

  • heinbloed

    France managed to fit-in 9% PV power yesterday at noon and 10% today, both are probably new records:

    http://www.rte-france.com/fr/eco2mix/eco2mix-mix-energetique

    23 atom reactors of 58 were down yesterday and 25 are down at the moment.

    https://www.edf.fr/groupe-edf/qui-sommes-nous/activites/optimisation-et-trading/listes-des-indisponibilites-et-des-messages/liste-des-indisponibilites

    If this new government keeps going like the last few then we’ll see 50% PV-power on a sunny day and 20% atom power before the next election.
    The Energiewende in France moves about twice as fast than it did in Germany. Where they had 45% PV power today at noon:

    https://www.energy-charts.de/power.htm

    • Objectif Terre

      Solar PV in France in 2016: 1,6%

      If this new government keeps going like this then it will be very slow.

      2016 is “the worst year ever observed in France” 2016
      http://www.bioaddict.fr/article/energie-solaire-en-france-l-annee-2016-n-a-pas-ete-brillante-a5618p1.html

      The absurd delay of France in solar energy
      https://reporterre.net/L-absurde-retard-de-la-France-dans-l-energie-solaire

      • heinbloed

        ” Solar PV in France in 2016: 1,6% ”

        What do you mean with this?

        Any link?

        There are good times and bad times, after 2016 we arrived in 2017:

        https://www.pv-magazine.com/2017/03/01/frances-pv-capacity-tops-7-13-gw/

        Or from your link:

        ” L’année 2017 se présente mieux avec notamment une reprise du segment des grandes installations (1 MW et +), s’inscrivant à 63 MW ce premier trimestre, et devrait donc voir les raccordements repartir à la hausse pour atteindre la barre de 1 GW de nouvelles installation”

        The atom power plants and fossil fuel power plants are closing faster down than there are additions of RE-power plants, that is a matter of fact since a few years.

        This alone will shift the percentages towards an RE-growth, imports from green neighbors will do their bit until France has a better national RE-base.

        Just lean back, install nothing new and see the old things die-off. Hopefully without another Chernobyl or Fukushima effect.

        Europe/Brussel allows for cross-border installations, Denmark supplies Germany with PV:

        https://renewablesnow.com/news/danish-developer-wins-germanys-50-mw-cross-border-pv-auction-548690/

        If French investors are incompetent someone else will do it.

        With the only recent liberalization of the French electricity market the old generators are doomed, try Engie or other green suppliers.
        It is up to the consumers what is on offer.

        • Objectif Terre

          Here the link you asked:
          http://bilan-electrique-2016.rte-france.com/production/le-parc-de-production-national/
          “(…) closing faster down than there are additions of RE-power plants (…)”
          I hope that you are right.

          • heinbloed

            Thanks, the PV part in power production grew by 13% within a year to 1.6%.
            PV showed the 2nd strong growth of all sources, only NG grew stronger.
            This is a low starting point and promises strong progress for the years to come, think positive.

            About Engie: they have problems getting rid of the atom section but bit for bit they’re succeeding.
            Previously planned atom- partnerships have all been cancelled, no more new reactors.
            There are no buyers for the existing atom section, no matter how things are looked on: they’re stucked with it.

  • Shane White

    Keep in mind France’s per capita emissions are just 5 tons of CO2 whereas ours are 17! (ref: Global Carbon Atlas, http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions)

    Also France to shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2023: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-close-coal-plants-shut-down-2023-global-warming-climate-change-a7422966.html

    Big changes ahead. Wouldn’t be nice if we pitched in to help by lowering our emissions too?

  • Objectif Terre

    Alexis Corbière, spokesman of “La France insoumise” (19,2% at the presidential election): Nicolas Hulot will be “in this government like a polar bear in the Sahara, totally lost, nothing will happen” (Nicolas Hulot sera “dans ce gouvernement comme un ours polaire au Sahara, totalement perdu, il n’arrivera à rien”)
    http://www.francetvinfo.fr/politique/gouvernement-d-edouard-philippe/alexis-corbiere-nicolas-hulot-est-dans-ce-gouvernement-comme-un-ours-polaire-au-sahara_2195298.html