On Wednesday January 27th, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a long-awaited report called “Conditions and requirements for the technical feasibility of a power system with a high share of renewables in France towards 2050”. Yet, that document was given a cold welcome by the French nuclear industry, as behind this somewhat complex title hides a key message : a scenario of 100% renewable energy is “technically possible” in 2060 in France. This implies that the country would potentially no longer need nuclear energy to meet its domestic demand.
From a nuclear champion to the Flamanville struggle
The nuclear sector accounts for around 70% of today’s French electricity mix, and over 40% of final energy demand. Back in the 1970’s, France decided to take the nuclear path, aspiring to move away from oil and achieving energy independence. Since then, not only did the country guarantee its own security of electricity supply, but it could also export it towards neighboring EU countries. Killing two birds with one stone, France boasted some of the cheapest electricity in Europe and was proud to have an almost fossil fuels free electricity generation system.
In 2020, the priority has shifted from nuclear power towards complying with the Paris-agreement goal of being net-zero carbon by 2050. In its pluriannual plan of energy, France gave itself the objective to reduce the share of nuclear power in the energy mix to 50% by 2035. In 2020, the government announced the upcoming closure of 14 nuclear plants to fulfill this objective. The closure of the Fessenheim plant, in June 2020 left a 1,7 GW capacity gap to be compensated for with other sources of power generation.
In parallel, the fact that the French utility EDF is progressively losing its know-how in the nuclear field is consensually admitted. The difficulties EDF is facing with the construction of the Flamanville plant - i.e. the misconstructed weldings and excesses in budget - provide a salient illustration of this trend. Related: This Year Will Define The Next Decade In The Energy Industry
A crystallized tension around the atom
The timing of the IEA report is not innocuous. In fact, the nuclear industry is currently witnessing a pivotal moment, as the French Nuclear Regulator (ASN) recently greenlighted the extension of nuclear plants’ lifetime over 40 years. This means that some old reactors will be decommissioned but will have to be replaced by new ones. The French government faces a complicated question: on the one hand, it could opt to add additional nuclear capacity, or on the other, it could invest in renewable energy to compensate for the losses of nuclear capacity.
The IEA report was charged with exploring that specific dilemma. The report was commissioned by the French Transmission System Operator RTE, and meant to guide the Minister of Ecology - Barbara Pompili – in drafting the future energy policy. Barbara Pompili, who represents the French Green party, and has never hidden her opposition to nuclear energy, welcomed this report with enthusiasm : « The option of 100 % renewables has never been explored in such depth: the highest authority for energy admits it is technically possible », she declared to Le Monde.
The IEA does not go into detail about the feasibility of the renewable energy option. Yet, it is put on the table, and this is already enough for anti-nuclear environmental groups such as Greenpeace or Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire to claim victory, and to do away with decades of being called “utopists”. Related: Tesla’s 20 Million EV Ambition Faces Huge Mining Challenge
However, Pompili’s stance is far from being coherent with the previous moves of the Ministry of Environment, and even less with French president Emmanuel Macron’s speeches. Back in 2019, former Minister of Environment Elisabeth Borne requested EDF to draft a roadmap for the construction of 6 new European Pressurized Reactors (EPR). This decision provoked a surprise among the whole political spectrum, as building 6 new reactors in 15 years seemed unrealistic given the EDF’s struggle to build just one such plant at Flamanville.
On his part, the French president declared that “nuclear power has to remain a pillar in our national electricity mix”, showing little interest to fully pivot to renewables. Pompili has assured that no final decision will be issued before the end of the mandate, in 2022.
A “conditional” hope for the 100% scenario
The report shows that in both scenarios, the “share of renewables would substantially increase”. However, the 100% renewables scenario will require either painful sacrifices or massive investments, the IEA has listed four challenges which will need to be overcome for its implementation. The first one is improving grid stability (1), meaning the adequacy between supply and demand. Doing this without conventional energy sources appears difficult, especially considering the intermittent (or variable) character of renewables (2) To cope with this intermittency, the IEA envisages several solutions such as demand-side flexibility, improvement of batteries, and management of peaking units.
Then comes the necessary increase of operational reserves (3) and grid development (4), where the authors of the report write: “for the time being, France does not need to procure large volumes of operational reserves compared to other countries, and its balancing system is competitive, resulting in low costs for the consumer compared to other European countries”.
Whether France will manage to keep energy bills at acceptable levels for consumers is uncertain, and costs for the end-user may end up rising as a result of a nuclear phase-out. Next to this, the amount of investment made into the improved grid balanced systems is not clearly mentioned : the authors of the report merely say that “assessing the costs is beyond the scope of this report (...) although they might be substantial”.
Lastly, only one paragraph is dedicated to the issue of social acceptance and to the costs implied by these reforms, as if they were not essential for the government’s decision. Despite all the unknowns, one thing becomes clear from this report: if the 100% renewables scenario eventually takes shape, it will mark a definitive shift of the energy sector away from market logics.
By Tatiana Serova for Oilprice.com
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